Ordinarily, the release of a sustainability report by a single company would not be a big deal. However, when I read in my quarterly report that Aqua America (my local water company) had posted one on their website, I paid attention. I paid attention because last year there had been a shareholder proposal to publish a sustainability report according to a set of guidelines used by many companies in numerous industries. The response from management had been less than sympathetic. Their position essentially was that it would cost too much, and that the regulatory authorities (state water or public utility commissions) were not requiring such a report.
Fast forward a year. Now, at the annual meeting (in May, 2010) the company announced a…..sustainability report. The report’s presentation was given by the Chief Environmental Officer (whom I hope reports directly to the CEO). It was also accompanied by a press release picked up by the usual business media (Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, the Wall Street Journal, etc). The company’s report is located (from a colorful icon on the home page—always a good sign) at http://www.aquaamerica.com.
There is certainly room for debate about their concept of sustainability—it clearly places the economic implications of sustainability first, and the environmental ones second (at least in my opinion). Based on the prominence of issues in their report, it seems that the most important aspect of Aqua’s sustainability is the ability to continue to invest in capital improvements that in turn make the distribution of their product (water) more efficient, which in turn is good for the environment. Not too far behind is the ability to build an organization that will “outlive the current management” to quote the Chairman’s letter—i.e., an organization that will be around for a long time to come.
The report’s later sections have the type of material that most sustainability advocates tend to equate with sustainability. That is, the greenhouse gas estimates, the watershed protections, the wind and solar power usage, the measurement of fuel usage, the types of inks used on the statements, etc. One interesting aspect was the array of recycling programs in place—tires, motor oil, etc. I should note that the company has received a fair number of awards (listed in the report) for its varied environmental efforts. Also included are various civic involvement and employee development efforts. The employee development efforts can help retention, which ties back to the goal of building an organization that can outlive current management.
On one hand, I was a little disappointed in Aqua’s report, because I was looking for greater prominence on environmental issues. On the other hand, the general impression is that Aqua incorporates sustainability in a myriad of ways across their normal course of business. And if this truly so, then this is one of the more sustainable sustainability efforts out there. Underlying this blog is the idea that companies could and should incorporate sustainability into their regular lines of business. That is, sustainability is just something they do—not unlike producing profit guidance for investors.
I just hope they keep up what they are doing and use their efforts as a baseline, not as a mission accomplished.