Crosslands Bulletin

The Sustainability Handbook

Author: William Blackburn
Release Date: February 13, 2007
Number of Pages: 804
Binding: Paper

Publisher Information
Environmental Law Institute
2000 L Street NW, Suite 620
Washington, DC, USA

Phone: +1 202 939 3800

Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) had a plan.  In a scene from the motion picture “Saving Private Ryan,” he wants to lure a tank down a rubble-strewn street and blow off its tracks.  One problem.  He has no weapon powerful enough to do the job.

“We could try a sticky bomb,” he muses.

“Sir, you are making that up?” a soldier asks.

“No, it’s in the manual.  You can check it out if you want to.”

“We seem to be out of field manuals, sir, perhaps you can enlighten us.”

Bill Blackburn has done just that.  He has written a field manual for business leaders who want to make social and economic responsibility, and environmental protection part of everyday decisions in their companies.

Until 2003 Blackburn was a vice president and chief counsel of corporate environment, health, and safety at Baxter International, the global manufacturer and distributor of medical products.  He pioneered Baxter's unique environmental accounting system and masterminded the company's public reporting.

Along with dozens of other vps, Blackburn was let go from Baxter in a controversial cost-cutting move.  Some blessings come in disguises.  The 30-year corporate veteran immediately set out to explain everything there is to know at this point in time about a sustainability operating system — the state of the art.

Fittingly, the abbreviation of a sustainability operating system is SOS.  The premise is that companies can improve their success — and their chances of survival — by having one.

This reviewer could be biased, having had a small role in commenting on early drafts.  So it seemed like a good idea to ask the author to explain in his own words whether any company follows the course he lays out in the book, or why not.

“To date, I believe no organization has gone as far as implementing a complete SOS, although I’ve heard some say they have been studying it since the book came out in February,” Blackburn said.  “Companies have already integrated environmental management systems with safety and health systems, and a number have melded in security management systems as well.

“Having participated in the development and evolution of management systems standards since the late 1980s, I see the SOS as the logical next step for them.  It, and emerging approaches like it, will be the best tools available for extracting the most value from sustainability.

“The key thing that must be done to move the SOS forward is communicate the vision and value of it to leaders who are open to mining sustainability for value and addressing the inefficient Balkanization of systems now present in the current corporation.  This is change, and change is tough.”

Blackburn’s handbook contains the know-how needed to inspire the troops, overcome virtually all obstacles, and do any one of a million jobs along the way.  Each chapter starts off with a delightful quotation remarkably relevant to the contents.  Each ends with an actionable checklist, which amounts to a summary of what must be done at that stage of SOS development.

The missing ingredient is an index.  The publisher did not include one due to pressure to get the book out on time.  There will be an index for the non-US version and for the next US edition.

The table of contents is a starting place. It does not do justice to the scope of information in the book.  One solution is to leaf through page by page, marking ones of immediate interest with peelable write-on tabs.  Users may want to remember where the section is on voluntary codes and how to choose one, or what to do when key members of the team will not buy in.  Or they may mark the chart that lists the seven reasons why management systems fail to deliver superior performance, or the one with considerations for selecting IT solutions, or the nine model principles of stakeholder engagement.  How about the discussion of ways to minimize document burdens, or the special areas to address when deploying a sustainability initiative across cultures, or the SWOT analysis for sustainability issues?

There are separate chapters dealing with aspects of an SOS that apply outside of multinational corporations.  A chapter pertains to issues in small companies, another for NGOs, and one for governmental organizations.  Not immediately evident, though, is that the 62-page chapter on sustainability for colleges and universities is the buried gem in this group.

To write the chapter on academics, Blackburn conducted an exhaustive benchmarking review.  He calibrated his thoughts with input from professors and others who manage programs in schools.  He credits them and their work in a richly annotated,  27-page appendix of organizations that can help universities pursue sustainability.

“The Sustainability Handbook” conjures up a classic publication also from the library of the Environmental Law Institute.  “The Practical Guide to Environmental Management” by Frank Friedman has become a bible in its field.  One suspects that Blackburn’s handbook will celebrate a tenth edition some day, too.

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