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Hector Rodriguez, CIH, CSP, is global director, EHS and Sustainability, for Biogen Idec in Cambridge, MA. In this interview, Rodriguez explains how EHS professionals can use their skills and expertise to help organizations become more sustainable.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as global director, EHS and Sustainability, for Biogen Idec.

I have been working in the EHS field since the early 1990s in the chemical, pharmaceutical and consulting sectors. I am also an adjunct professor at Mount Ida College in Newton, MA where I teach a course on sustainability management. I hold an M.S. in industrial engineering from New Jersey Institute of Technology and an M.B.A. from Stern School of Business in New York.

In my position with Biogen Idec, I provide oversight to the company’s sustainability strategy, which today incorporates elements such as increasing the efficiency of our fleet and implementing our green chemistry and LEED programs. It also integrates social programs such as philanthropy, community involvement and research ethics. I am responsible and accountable for our EHS risk mitigation and compliance efforts.

How is corporate sustainability defined, and what role do sustainability professionals play?

More than 20 years ago, the Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as engaging in “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  It is also at times interchangeably used with the term “corporate social responsibility,” which encourages business to expand the definition of success into one that incorporates people and planet with the overarching drive to increase profits. This is also known as the “triple bottom line.”
Sustainability professionals are responsible for creating a comprehensive strategy that identifies value-enhancing initiatives in areas impacting environmental and social performance. A comprehensive sustainability strategy development process includes:

  • Development of a Governance Structure. This may have two or more levels, one at the C-Suite level, which approves strategy and allocates resources, and a second level with responsibility to implement initiatives needed to achieve strategy.
  • Materiality Assessment. Identifies areas of criticality to the organization and social and environmental gaps in those areas.
  • Formal Planning Sessions. Identifies specific initiatives, which aid in mitigating gaps.
  • Sustainability Program Management. Provides oversight and tracks initiatives while providing visibility to them throughout all levels of the corporation.

In the end, the sustainability professional acts as a member of the C-Suite, a de-facto chief sustainability officer, communicating, educating and influencing sustainability aspects throughout all levels of the corporation.

Sustainability efforts tend to concentrate within the public relations and investor relations, human resources, facilities and EHS functions. Why?

Responsibility for managing sustainability aspects of the business tends to fall on those functions with the ability to influence social and/or environmental aspects of a corporation.
Human Resources (HR). HR often provides oversight to key critical social aspects of an organization. Those aspects include talent acquisition and retention, diversity, philanthropy and work-life balance, all of them with clear linkages to the sustainability movement.

  • Talent Acquisition. An increasing percentage of the population prefers to work for organizations that effectively manage their social and environmental obligations. Talent acquisition groups within HR recognize this fact and often market the organization’s sustainability efforts.
  • Talent Retention. High morale and an enhanced level of employee satisfaction is a key indicator of organizations’ ability to retain key talent. Employees often reference top-notch performance on sustainability as a key driver of morale and employee satisfaction.
  • Diversity. Few aspects foretell the long-term sustainability of an organization as its ability to attract and retain talent of diverse perspectives, backgrounds and process of thought; it also has clear links to the social element of the “triple bottom line.”
  • Philanthropy. Organizations often recognize that to operate a sustainable enterprise they must, where it makes strategic sense, subsidize societal activities or processes with human and/or financial assistance. These organizations at times formalize these efforts under a company-sponsored foundation under the leadership of HR personnel with clear organizational linkages to the company’s sustainability efforts.
  • Work-Life Balance. One of the key critical indicators of organizations’ ability to retain key talent is their willingness to enable their employees to balance their work requirements with their personal lives. These programs, with tangible environmental benefits through less commuting, are often managed by HR departments.

Facilities and Engineering. Companies operating in industries with high operational expenses (manufacturing, mining, chemicals, etc.) go through significant efforts to mitigate them. Therefore, the reason why it makes sense for facilities and engineering personnel to lead the sustainability efforts is because of synergies between the activities, the environmental benefits and reduction in costs. Examples include:

  • Energy Management. Energy costs are one of the largest expense line items; linking sustainability efforts (less energy consumption) with the bottom line (less costs) is one of the most effective ways of getting visibility to the program.
  • Water Efficiency. Depending on industry, water scarcity has the potential to cripple a company’s ability to continue operations. Any effort to reduce water utilization rates saves money, benefits the environment, enhances the public perception of companies and ensures the long-term sustainability of the organization.
  • Budgets. This function often possesses one of the largest budgets of any function within a corporation, making it easy for senior management to just ask it to “do sustainability as well.”
  • Technical Expertise. Facilities and engineering personnel know infrastructure well, so it makes sense for them to devise systems and initiatives that drive down energy and water use rates.

EHS. No other function touches social and environmental aspects of the business at the same time. Applicable areas of EHS professionals’ expertise include:

  • Regulatory. Few groups are as versed as EHS in identifying new regulatory obligations and reacting to them as appropriate. The Clean Energy and Security Act (aka The Energy Bill or Cap and Trade) is one which EHS professionals can read, understand and interpret to the benefit of the corporation that employs them.
  • Management Systems. Sustainability management requires management commitment, employee involvement, compliance with regulations and the ability to understand and manage risk. EHS professionals often excel on all of these elements of management.
  • Environmental Expertise. One of the three pillars of sustainability is the ability to manage and mitigate environmental aspects—that is what EHS professionals do.
  • Health & Safety. EHS professionals have the ability and expertise to improve employee morale and to mitigate costs through appropriate implementation of health and safety programs with the added benefit of improving quality and productivity at the same time.

Marketing/Commercial Arm. Some industries (automotive, chemicals, temperature control systems, etc.) have the opportunity to drive revenue from the green movement. In such cases, it may make sense for the marketing/commercial arm of a corporation to lead sustainability programs.

Public Affairs. They handle external stakeholder relations for corporations. The government, nongovernmental organizations, communities, etc. request a tremendous amount of information from corporations on social and environmental concerns. Depending on industry and the type and number of requests, it may make sense for public affairs to lead sustainability efforts.

Investor Relations (IR). The socially responsible investing (SRI) community is increasing in size (now in trillions of dollars), scope (addressing services as well as manufacturing) and influence (including resolutions to the board). Corporations that have a significant amount of SRI investors, or want to access SRI funds, often ask their IR groups to head the company’s sustainability efforts.

How can EHS professionals help organizations become more sustainable? What qualities or skills do EHS professionals have that lend themselves well to promoting sustainability?

Three factors cause EHS professionals to be perfectly positioned to help organizations become more sustainable: organizational positioning, technical expertise and management systems.
1. Organizational Positioning. EHS links to the two most important functions from a sustainability perspective—HR and engineering and facilities. HR and EHS personnel have long worked together in managing employee health and safety issues. Engineering and facilities personnel often manage and mitigate environmental risks and also make needed infrastructure improvements to mitigate health and safety concerns.

2. Technical Expertise. Sustainability addresses social and environmental issues, with environmental concerns often being of utmost importance. EHS professionals bring valuable technical expertise in the areas of waste minimization, efficiency and compliance, which are key attributes in an effective sustainability program.

3. Management Systems. The fact that sustainability management requires the input and effort of so many players and functions to be successful is often overlooked. For years, EHS professionals have been exposed to management systems (ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001, VPP and NEPT), which require integration of efforts. These professionals know how to get management commitment, achieve employee engagement, identify new regulations and mitigate risk. These are likely to be key attributes of successful sustainability professionals as well.

Why is sustainability so important in the current economic climate?

Sustainability is today one of the most important business drivers, and not just because it may help mitigate climate change concerns, but because it has the potential to drive company revenue and profit growth as well.

Specific drivers include:

    • Lower costs:
    • Lower energy, water and waste removal costs achieved through education and investment.
    • Lower purchasing costs by implementing systems which, as an example, reduce the need to purchase chemicals in bulk.
    • Talent acquisition and retention: a top-notch sustainability program may help retain employees through increased job satisfaction, with resulting increased productivity and lower talent acquisition costs.
    • Compliance assurance: a stream of new climate change regulations is coming out of the European Union and soon to come out of the U.S. Congress. A formal sustainability program may enable some to profit, or at a minimum, minimize potential costs.
    • Risk mitigation: U.S. corporations continue to outsource labor-intensive operations to the developing world; however, social and environmental risks are not totally outsourced. A formal sustainability program may allow corporations to identify and mitigate social and environmental risks throughout its supply chain.
    • Less operational risk: climate change (whether caused by nature or humans) can significantly affect a company’s operations. Think about limits on access to fresh water for water-intensive industries or power shutdowns due to intense heat for energy-intensive industries. A formal sustainability program may enable a corporation to predict these events and to take long-term action to mitigate the impact and therefore reduce cost.
    • Access to capital: the SRI community is willing to invest trillions of dollars in those companies that are seen as outperformers in the sustainability arena. A company that outperforms may be able to borrow or raise capital from the market at a lower cost of capital.
    • Product opportunities: corporations in certain industries (automotive, chemicals, energy, etc.) may be able to drive profit by developing products that specifically target sustainability concerns.

    How can sustainability positively impact worker safety and health within an organization? In what ways can it affect injury rates, costs, lost workdays, etc.?

    Some of the main challenges EHS professionals face include lack of resources, limited visibility to senior management and the general feeling of “been there, done that” that permeates the employee population. Sustainability can help in all three areas.
    I have found that justifying investments that enhance health and safety in the workplace are at times a tough sell unless it is a regulatory requirement or presents an imminent hazard. However, projects seem to sail when similar issues are wrapped in the “sustainability blanket.”

    Examples include:

    • Lighting: enhanced lighting may be a difficult sell from a safety perspective, yet it is easily justified if approached from an energy reduction point of view.
    • Temperature controls: drafty windows may not get fixed if the sole argument is health, but adding the element of greenhouse gas reductions may do the trick.
    • Fleet safety: funding fleet safety programs is easy to do when presented as a sustainability initiative that saves money through increased gas efficiency documented by a properly trained driver population.

    Many other examples like these exist (fixing leaks that waste water and cause slips, eliminating air leaks that waste energy and cause hearing loss, etc.) where all that is needed to protect worker safety and health is a simple restating of an old problem. Therefore, a clear, well-implemented sustainability program can positively impact worker safety and health.

    How does Biogen Idec routinely promote sustainability? What are its sustainability goals for 2010?

    Biogen Idec promotes sustainability through management commitment, employee involvement and specific sustainability goals.
    Biogen Idec has established a corporate governance structure with multiple levels. From site-specific sustainability committees to a corporate sustainability leadership committee, ending with the corporate sustainability council headed by members of the C-Suite.

    Sustainability efforts are linked with our operational excellence initiative, which together with a sustainability suggestion box, has resulted in more than 1,000 suggestions that improve sustainability performance for the company.

    Many individuals, groups and sites have integrated sustainability goals in their 2010 plans. The corporation has set a goal that aims to reduce its overall environmental footprint by 15% on an absolute basis by 2015. Our environmental footprint goal includes energy use, water use and solid waste. Specific initiatives, which will allow us to meet and potentially exceed that goal, include:

      • Implementing a formal green chemistry program
      • Improving the efficiency of our fleet
      • Piloting a telecommuting program
      • Implementing green IT initiatives
      • Engaging in formal energy and water audits throughout our operations
      • Influencing the performance of our supply chain
      • Sponsoring a disposable manufacturing project and
      • Certifying new construction against the LEED protocol

      How can EHS professionals convince senior management to invest in sustainability?

      The key is to gain credibility as a business leader. EHS professionals must understand that they support an organization whose vision and mission seldom revolves around EHS concerns. The implications should be clear—the EHS function is an ancillary one and will always be considered a cost of doing business, regardless of what some business leaders may say while in the public eye.
      EHS professionals must first convince senior management that they understand their role is in the organization, which is to enable it to achieve its vision and mission by mitigating EHS-related risks. Credibility earned through that process easily grants EHS professionals the power and influence needed to drive implementation of the sustainability program; little convincing will be needed at that point.

      In what ways can the public relations and investor relations, human resources, facilities and EHS departments within an organization collaborate when it comes to sustainability?

      A sustainability strategy requires the cooperation of multiple individuals from all critical functions, each one of which has goals and objectives that are, at first, unlikely to include sustainability in them. A formal governance structure, which identifies the members of key functions to be part of a sustainability team, is therefore required for appropriate collaboration to occur.

      The sustainability team’s first action is to identify critical sustainability aspects with the potential to affect the corporation (e.g., materiality assessment). Here collaboration plays its most important part. This team must work together to identify and prioritize those initiatives, which would then form the organization’s sustainability strategy.

      Must an organization’s sustainability goals change as the economy changes? Please explain.

      Properly designed sustainability goals add value to the organization. They are investments that could change as the economy changes, in the same way any other investment may change.

      Hector Rodriguez, CIH, CSP, is global director, EHS and Sustainability, for Biogen Idec in Cambridge, MA. He provides oversight to the company’s sustainability strategy and is responsible and accountable for EHS risk mitigation and compliance efforts.

      Rodriguez has worked in the EHS field since the early 1990s in the chemical, pharmaceutical and consulting sectors. He is also an adjunct professor at Mount Ida College in Newton, MA where he teaches a course on sustainability management. He holds an M.S. in industrial engineering from New Jersey Institute of Technology and an M.B.A. from Stern School of Business in New York.