Luca and dad GregLuca is three years old. He does not know much, if anything, about sustainability yet. This is all the more reason we must be responsible stewards of our (and his) resources, not to mention teaching him about how to live in a way that considers our impact on our communities and environment.

Corporate sustainability initiatives face significant adoption hurdles, which include the traditional business emphasis on rapid growth, continuous short-term performance, and most importantly, quick return on investment. For example, installing solar panels is still a relatively expensive undertaking, though becoming more cost competitive. While they reduce the cost of power to the user, the size of the yearly savings compared with the initial capital investment means that it can take five to ten years just to break even. When managers’ compensation is based on quarterly results, it is not hard to understand why technologies like this can be wholly unappealing for them.

In thirty years, however, when those panels would have paid back the initial investment at least three times and continue to generate clean power, the company would be considered a visionary. I would rather tell Luca that his college savings account took a 0.001% hit on return because the companies in the fund decided to embark on these long-term investments, than to apologize for the continued and increasing emission of greenhouse gases into his atmosphere because of a dated and ineffective system for measuring performance. If companies pursue product and service strategies that actually leverage sustainability for competitive advantage, we could even tell Luca that his mutual funds paid greater returns as a result of thoughtful choices, and the environmental benefits still come along for the ride. I like this scenario best.

Luca’s father Greg is a good friend and one of my mentors. He runs his own business as a graphic designer and has been recognized by many organizations for the creativity of his work. One of his clients is the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra (PYO), where I managed marketing, public relations and operations in the first permanent job of my career. Several of Greg’s designs for our promotional material, including a custom font, have won many international awards. Working closely with Greg to develop our printed material, I learned much about going beyond sharp looking logos to creating cohesive organization identities (his specialty). His contract did not include providing critical advice on the website I developed for PYO, letting me work out of his studio in the afternoon when the sun through the south windows turned PYO’s office into an oven, or calling for cheesesteak delivery from Tony Luke’s, over which I would grumble about whatever happened to be annoying me at the time. Greg is as patient as he is generous, something I did not appreciate at the time and which I am still figuring out how to return.

Greg may have also unwittingly planted the seed that set me off in a new direction, ultimately leading me to where I find myself today. He brought me along to a luncheon presentation, aimed at designers and printers, which gave an overview of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), organizations that promote responsible management of forests and issue independent certifications for products (like paper) derived from trees. The luncheon sponsor had hired a charismatic speaker, who counted among his associates Nelson Mandela, to convince us that using certified products was meaningful and necessary, and suggest strategies for getting clients to adopt this into printing specifications. I did not need to be sold. It just made sense to me. Why would we do this any other way? Why were we not doing it already?

Dinner is almost readyOn our walk back to our offices through Rittenhouse Square, I whipped up a directive for my boss that we immediately convert to certified paper stock. Greg came along for backup, though in his wisdom, presented his side of the request in a decidedly less dogmatic manner. Although the change did not happen overnight, PYO now utilizes FSC certified stock with 50% recycled content. I cannot take credit for this, as Greg is the one who constructed the business case for making the shift after I had left to attend graduate school. He proudly presented me with the latest marquee concert program when my wife Min and I joined him and his family for a home cooked dinner last week.

Greg has observed a significant and promising shift in his clients’ reactions to the idea of using certified paper products. Awareness of the certification has grown, the products have become more cost competitive with traditional alternatives, and clients’ stakeholders now take greater interest in the choices made by the companies printing these materials. As a result, many clients no longer need to be persuaded to specify certified stock, rather they are quick to recognize its significance and in some cases have asked for it without prompt. I will likely be in positions where I must persuade others to consider sustainability investments that, at first glance, do not appear to meet traditional criteria for success. Having field data from someone like Greg goes a long way toward generating credibility for the sustainability case.

Wine aging barrelAfter all that Greg has given (and continues to give) me, I am still at a bit of a loss as to what I can offer in exchange, though I think I recently found a starting point. One of Greg’s hobbies is making wine. I can personally vouch that he has become quite good at it. He uses an antique press that has been in his family for generations and was shipped to America when his grandfather emigrated from Calabria, Italy. The wine is excellent, though the process presents something of a sustainability challenge with regard to water use. The oak barrel for aging the wine is employed only during a portion of the year, but must be kept in wet storage (filled with liquid) when not in use, so that the wood does not deteriorate. Greg uses mineral water with some preservatives (naturally derived and biodegradable) for this solution. The problem is that this water is unsuitable for drinking and cannot be reused, so he has been left with the unsatisfying choice of dumping the used liquid down the drain each year.

Guarding the press from would-be invadersAs I am studying toward LEED accreditation (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the concept of reclaiming graywater immediately jumped to mind. Graywater is wastewater that is no longer potable, but perfectly suitable to other building processes, such as irrigation and flushing toilets. Depending on the source and use of graywater, it may need to be treated, but in Greg’s case the cask water could be immediately reused as flushing water. I was concerned about the difficulty of moving the water from the basement to the second floor lavatory and began to envision some arrangement involving a hose and sump pump, when Greg offered that given the volume, using a bucket would make a lot more sense. I remembered Greg’s design advice about use of white space. Sometimes less is more. Do not make things any more complicated than they need be. I can see that, like Luca, I still have a lot to learn from him.