Julia Barnes is the Senior Editor at the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series blog (TSSS).

Dr. Stephanie Bertels is an Assistant Professor in Technology and Operations Management at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. As a topic editor on Organizational Culture for the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS), she keeps an eye on high quality academic research and makes sure it gets translated quickly for practitioners working on the ground.  She is the lead author on the recent NBS report, Embedding Sustainability into Organizational Culture, a comprehensive review of the literature on the subject. I spoke with Dr. Bertels recently about her research and her perspective on the sustainability of business.

Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media RelationsJulia Barnes: Your research focuses on how organizations go about the process of embedding sustainability into their organizational culture. Can you tell me more about what you’re interested in?

Stephanie Bertels: There’s been a lot of academic work that’s looked at the business case for sustainability. What we’re seeing now is that companies have bought into that. They realize that this is a new reality and what they really need now is guidance on how to do that on a daily basis. Many have had individual champions within the organizations that have come in and pushed things forward, but the question becomes how do you make it an everyday, enduring part of what everybody does?

JB: When we talk about making sustainability part of what everybody does in a business are we talking about changing what the business actually does, how they make money?

SB: The answer is probably. While initially companies may not change what it is that they’re doing but just tweak how they’re doing it, ultimately most organizations probably will be thinking about doing things differently. That’s simply because our whole system is not all that sustainable. There are some core biophysical realities that most if not all organizations are running up against. We’ll all have to take more of a systems view on the product or service that we produce and how that fits in with the larger ecosystem and how it fits in with society and with the social system.

JB: The report you prepared for the Network for Business Sustainability, based on a thorough review of all academic literature available on the topic, identifies four types of practices that a business can employ to embed sustainability in their culture. Are there risks to relying too heavily on any one of these types?

SB: We’re saying that there needs to be a portfolio approach. Our suggestion is that organizations think about doing things that are in all four of these quadrants simultaneously, that they reflect on their strategy and make sure there’s a balance of doing what you said you were going to do versus thinking about the future, and also a balance between doing things that are going to focus on people’s values and behaviours versus creating the structures and policies that actually make it happen and integrate it into the organization.

JB: As you’ve noted, the vast majority of CEOs already acknowledge that sustainability is important, but it is a concept that’s hard to pin down and people don’t all agree on what it means. Do you think there’s a right answer or can it vary?

SB: I think it has to vary from organization to organization. One of the practices that we highlighted [in the NBS report] as critically important to building momentum for change is actually the process of going about and defining sustainability. Not coming up with a definition but having a conversation about what it means for the organization. There won’t be any one universal definition because it has to be contextualized. To me that’s actually a powerful thing–not a problem–in the sense that I think that ambiguity creates a lot of wiggle room for organizations to frame things and to emphasize what resonates with them and that that definition can and should shift with the organization. You don’t pick one and lock into it for the next 50 years because conditions are going to change and organizations need to be able to respond to that.

JB: Before you pursued your Ph.D., you worked as an environmental engineer. I was wondering how that experience influenced your views on sustainability?

SB: Even before that I was a placard-waving environmental activist so I think both of those things have influenced how I view this. It’s been a trajectory of collecting a bunch of different sets of skills. I pursued environmental engineering because, at the time, the science was less certain. That was a point when we were doing a lot of building our understanding of the roots of climate change, building our understanding of toxicity. And what I take from that is a systems approach, that we have a finite set of resources and we need to pay attention to how we use them.

JB: And how have things changed over your career?

SB: As I started to work as an environmental engineer I found that the issues people were struggling with in trying to implement sustainability were not the core science issues but were largely organizational, they were around building momentum for sustainability within organizations. At the time when I was doing my PhD it was very much around building the business case for sustainability. Now it’s almost come full circle: there’s a need for core sustainability understanding and core understanding of the biophysical systems that constrain us. For a long time we’ve operated as if these constraints could be somehow overcome by technology or that they wouldn’t come around and bite us in our life time and I think that people are just realizing that maybe that’s not the case. So in the work that I’m doing with organizations now we have conversations about these basic biophysical limits.

JB: As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about how businesses make this transition, I wonder how optimistic you are about our sustainable future?

SB: I’m quite optimistic and that is based on the conversations I’ve been having with senior people in large organizations over the last year. They’re asking smart questions, not reactive but really forward-thinking questions. They’re asking the kind of questions that are about charting a new path that does acknowledge biophysical limitations and that’s really exciting to be hearing. In the past, I was hearing it from sustainability directors in companies and I was sometimes hearing it from VPs but now I’m hearing it from COOs and even CFOs and that is the difference, that’s when I think ‘woah, this is actually happening in this company.’

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Dr. Stephanie Bertels will be speaking at the TSSS on Tuesday June 21, 2011. For more information or to register, click here.

Interview conducted by Julia Barnes, Senior editor at the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series blog.