The NEW Sustainability Role of Environmental Managers in Industry

February 11, 2023

SCS Engineers Sustainability
In an age where everyone is expected to do more with less, Environmental Managers are being “volunteered” to figure out this Sustainability “thing.” Company leaders, customers, shareholders, and community stakeholders expect more than just compliance these days.


A couple of decades ago, industry Environmental Managers (EM) reviewed and interpreted regulations, permit requirements, and reporting obligations and educated their operations personnel on requirements from the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. As usual, time flies, and those major pieces of environmental legislation are more than 50 years old now, and much of the framework remains unchanged. There have also been advances in the best control technologies and great strides in automated record keeping and reporting, enabling us as environmental compliance professionals to be more efficient and offering “clear skies” regarding a manageable workload. Sure, occasional exceedances, deviations, or releases require a four-alarm fire drill as an appropriate response or the integration of the most recent ISO 14001 version release. Still, for the most part, times were good.


Sustainability changes everything.

Environmental Managers read press releases from CEOs making bold claims that their company is adopting “zero” carbon or “net neutral” goals without a real baseline carbon inventory or a roadmap for accomplishing such aggressive measures. Not to say that setting stretch targets are a “bad thing.” On the contrary, they are good targets that improve environmental stewardship for companies that may not otherwise focus on such activities. John F. Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech set a bold target for landing on the moon, stretching our space program to new limits.


Meeting the New Challenge

The challenge for you, the EM, comes into play when the responsibility of this relatively new sustainability practice is now on your desk. Larger companies are hiring Sustainability Directors at a record pace which is vital to the planning and programming of new sustainability initiatives. But even then, there are situations where EMs are responsible for implementation and retrofitting plans or projects that are conceptual in nature. And if you don’t have the luxury of a Sustainability Director to lean on, you now have the additional responsibility of developing road maps and strategies.


Where can an Environmental Manager focus on impactfully?

After concluding your version of the Serenity Prayer, we suggest starting in these three areas:

  • Have a clear understanding of your baseline. Whether your company’s leadership has decided to voluntarily tackle greenhouse gases or focus on other environmental stewardship goals such as waste or water reduction, recycling, or greener supply chains, collect detailed information on your current inventory or consumption/production data. You may think this is a “no-brainer,” but many companies don’t have a complete snapshot of baseline data, whether it is waste, emissions generation, or consumption information. Many companies have not established a complete baseline and are implementing sustainability projects that may be difficult to quantify the impacts of later on.


  • Develop a list of projects prioritizing cost benefits and environmental impacts. Companies are in business to make a profit – your firm cannot be sustainable unless balancing economic viability with environmental objectives. You will likely find yourself competing for CapEx dollars with operations and other departments who are jockeying for projects with a stronger return on investment. Most sustainability projects will reduce costs and have a respectable payback period, and EMs should calculate those impacts to the bottom line and get credit where deserved. However, it also requires discussion in advance with leadership on appropriate budgets needed to implement the projects and discuss how to fund and prioritize sustainability projects over others with higher returns. Most companies have an annual planning cycle for CapEx projects and have criteria to rank and prioritize. Make sure you understand the timing and the criteria.


  • Think Circular Economy. The terms “reshoring” or “near-shoring” indicate that companies identify suppliers closer to where they make or sell their products. Globalization has been rolling back for a while, and we’re adapting to supply chain vulnerabilities exposed during the pandemic and other recent trade wars. Companies focus on identifying suppliers “closer to home” to reduce risks like lead times and transportation logistics, resulting in greener Scope 3 emissions. However, there is a larger benefit to a company’s sustainability program. For example, local or regional suppliers will be more receptive to collecting and re-using shipping containers, pallets, and other packaging materials. Having suppliers close by will also result in additional companies focused on recycling and processing materials or byproducts you may have in common with the suppliers. Research and collaborate within your regions to identify the “highest and best uses” of materials that otherwise may end up in a landfill.

These steps will go a long way toward planning, programming, and launching sustainability initiatives with measurable results. Environmental Managers are making a difference by collaborating with operations to convert sustainable ideas and goals into reality. SCS works with large and small public and private entities to support their actions.


steven stewartAbout the Author: Steven D. Stewart, P.E. PMP, SCS Engineers. Project Director. LinkedIn. I look forward to hearing, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for Environmental Managers.’ If you need help with your sustainability program, don’t hesitate to contact us at SCS Engineers. Look for Steve this week at the GreenBiz 2023.


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Posted by Diane Samuels at 4:35 pm