Sustainability 2019 (or What Would Frieda Do?)

 
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The first sustainability experts I ever encountered were family members, namely my parents and grandparents. Mom and dad grew up during the Depression and World War II and related a number of stories over the years about how their families made ends meet during difficult times. While it wasn’t called “sustainability” back then, save, reduce, reuse was the mantra throughout their childhood and teenage years.

Some of the anecdotes seem to get lost in generational translation. My mom has said that when she was young, kids were known to chew on fresh road tar as a substitute for gum. Each time the topic comes up, I envision a pack of smiling kids with black-licorice teeth. Now, I enjoyed my share of Hubba Bubba growing up, but absent any retail gum option, I think I could’ve gone without.

My dad kept a focus on sustainability throughout his life. His frugality extended to the “tools of the trade” of an amateur lumberjack. Dad installed a wood-burning stove in our house in the early 1980s, which was fueled primarily by the burning of downed trees from the ancestral farm. This supplemental heat source also facilitated some good quality time with dad as we trod into “the woods” to harvest loads of unsuspecting (dead) oaks, elms and maples.

Like any lumberjack worth his or her bar and chain oil, we had a sophisticated system for hauling what we had vanquished with our trusty McCulloch 14” chainsaw (a gift from dad for my 14th birthday, no kidding). Once the firewood was cut, we would maneuver the Dodge Caravan – with realistic wood paneling – into position with the accompanying trailer, the true MVP of the operation: a cut-off 1950s Studebaker truck box affixed with a tongue and a hitch. As far as I could tell, it boasted the original tires from the Eisenhower administration, which might explain why it tracked behind the “family truckster” at times like a drunken cow on rollerblades.

While my parents taught me much about conserving and reusing, grandma Frieda took sustainability and efficiency to another level – she had “game.” Throughout the 40 years I was lucky to know her, she demonstrated a laser-focus commitment to conservation. A quilt hung in a doorway limited heat loss to the unused second floor of the 1912-vintage farmhouse. Kitchen linoleum could be preserved through the application of old newspapers as protection, while the lifespan of furniture was measured in decades, thanks in part to drop cloths placed over couches and armchairs (and a general policy of sitting on them only on special occasions). Sustainability for Frieda meant being mindful of what you value and doing what you could to protect, maintain, and extend resources.

Sustainability as it relates to business is a broad topic, encompassing all aspects of operations, including reducing current and future expenses to improve profitability, competitiveness and longevity. Resource-life extension is achieved by preventing and eliminating waste. While this inaugural blog post leans toward the personal, future writings will focus on how organizations can both protect resources and maximize their utility through energy efficiency, energy management, and sustainability – not unlike a drop cloth over a cozy armchair.