Big Questions for a Better Built Environment

By: Sarah Barbo, FES/SOM 2014

Can we realize financial advantages while addressing the most pressing environmental and social concerns of our time?

This question framed a discussion on private sector contribution to sustainability, held on January 28th at Yale F&ES. Gary Lawrence, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at AECOM, talked with F&ES Professor Paul Anastas and an auditorium full of students about his role at the Fortune 500 company, the private sector’s role in progressing sustainability, and why the need is now.

Sustainability at AECOM

AECOM, an $8 billion global provider of professional technical and management support service, works to improve conditions for global development while increasing shareholder value. Within this context, Lawrence explained that sustainability becomes more about “managing complexity” than “being green.” For a company whose growth centers on understanding the “big picture” for its clients, tracking megatrends that impact sustainability are a crucial aspect of maintaining a competitive advantage.
Within AECOM, Lawrence oversees the enterprise efficiency – the traditional corporate sustainability role in supply chain, internal operations, and reporting. He also acts as the “talking head” for AECOM at global sustainability forums. This participation in global forums, Lawrence stated, maintains AECOM’s status as a “thought leader” in sustainability, staying on the front of innovation and delivering this advantage to their clients.

The Role of the Private Sector

Private, public, and non-profit sectors are complimentary pieces in promoting sustainability. Lawrence acknowledges the role of government regulations and non-profit “spirit” and mobility in driving sustainability issues. The private sector, Lawrence attests, is where wealth is created. But for sustainability to work, things must cost what they should. Proper incentives must be in place, driven by true costs, in order to make the business case for sustainability to their clients.

The drawback for a client-driven company, Lawrence readily admits, is that its influence can be limited. AECOM can present sustainability to its clients, but at the end of the day, the clients make the decision. This makes it all the more important to find metrics that the financial world will accept. As Lawrence pointed out: “the pushback is much quieter when the Return on Investment is positive.”

Why Now?

Lawrence’s view is that traditional barriers to sustainability- the status quo, uncertainty, and financial costs- are easing as the private sector has begun breaking away from a narrow definition of sustainability. Changes are happening. Lawrence’s advice to those working in the private sector is to remain humble: no one really knows the right answers to these questions. He also theorized that the sustainability community-at-large is often fighting the wrong fights. Focus on those who believe, was his message, and help them succeed, rather than spending time and resources trying to convince the non-believers.

As a final thought, Lawrence underscored the vital importance of why these changes must happen now, referencing the recent upheavals in weather and impacts on humans: “The earth is going to be fine,” he stated, “the real question is, do we achieve sustainability through grace, or through systems collapse?”

Sarah Barbo is most recently from Baltimore, Maryland, and is a second year, joint MESc and MBA candidate at Yale. She is interested in sustainable human and economic development and its implications on human health and biodiversity.

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