When Laurence Serra talks about the urgency of stopping climate change in its overheated tracks, business people don’t argue. Disagreement isn’t the problem, Serra says. Everyone has heard the warnings, such as the recent United Nations report that we have a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum 1.5 C. If we don’t, according to the UN, floods, heat, drought and poverty will engulf the planet.
The problem for companies is knowing what actions to take, explains Serra – and that’s why she enrolled in the Sustainable Business Leadership (SBL) program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology School of Business (BCIT Business). “The program teaches you how to approach upper management and CEOs, and speak a common language so they can engage and implement sustainable initiatives. And, to show them how embracing these initiatives will make their business better and more sustainable.”
Like many SBL students, Serra appreciated the part-time option so she could continue working full time. SBL also appealed to Serra – an environmental manager with BGIS, a company offering services in facilities management – because it features BCIT’s renowned Capstone projects. Unlike theory-centred university options, Capstone allows SBL students to work with real-world businesses on sustainability challenges. And, nearly all SBL instructors are industry practitioners. SBL was a perfect match, Serra decided – one that would help her move forward in her career with both more knowledge and more confidence.
Key to saving the planet: businesses
For sustainability to succeed, the business sector, with leaders like Serra, must take action, says SBL program head Tessa Jordan. “Sustainability requires more than government policies and individual consumer actions. It requires that every industry and every company look at their ecological footprints and find ways to reduce their impacts by improving efficiencies and adopting more effective practices.”
Like Serra, Jordan rarely encounters a business that doesn’t get the need for “big, bold actions, not small solutions.”
“They just need to know where to start,” Jordan says. “We see our graduates as having two roles: solving existing sustainability challenges that businesses are facing, and creating new ventures that have sustainability built in on the ground floor. The challenge is how to devise an economy that respects planetary boundaries while ensuring everyone can meet their basic human needs.”
Despite mostly negative media coverage of climate change, Jordan sees reasons for hope. Corporate moves toward sustainability are indeed occurring, as in Vancouver’s film industry – and one of its change leaders is SBL grad Jennifer G. Sandoval.
Sustainability was a career change for Sandoval, a former Seattle lawyer and prosecutor who took the nine-month, full-time SBL program after being a stay-at-home mom. The idea of working in social corporate responsibility wasn’t new to Sandoval; she’d volunteered helping victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas-leak disaster and served on the board of the Seattle-based Network for Business Innovation and Sustainability.
Film industry focuses on sustainability
For her Capstone project, Sandoval worked with Mark Rabin, CEO and founder of Portable Electric, a local startup that supplies film sets with portable power to reduce the use of traditional emission-spewing diesel generators. “Mark’s pollutionless, noiseless, battery-powered units can be charged by plugging into the grid or using solar panels or wind power. I was involved in researching the main economic, environmental and behavioural barriers to, and benefits of, how the units could be integrated into existing power systems on film sets.”
A major advantage of industry-based project work, in SBL as in other BCIT Business programs, is making connections. Sandoval met Zena Harris, president of Green Spark Group, which consults with the film industry on sustainable production practices. Harris ended up hiring Sandoval, who credits the SBL program for the skills she’s now applying: “everything from sustainability reporting and understanding the basics of materiality assessments, to helping communicate sustainability within the industry and stakeholders.”
The SBL program will go global in October 2019, when BCIT hosts the Ecocity World Summit in Vancouver. The summit will bring together international stakeholders looking to develop cities in balance with the natural world.
Like Jordan and Sandoval, Serra sees hope in the power of both local and global initiatives. “We’re trying to show people that it’s feasible and doable – and that, in the end, we can achieve great things.”
This story first appeared in Business in Vancouver, November 19, 2018.