Eco-polymaths, illustration by Nik Harron Illustration by Nik Harron

This is part five of our Skills for the New Economy series. Start with part one: "Creating an Artisanal Life as an Eco-Polymath."

For decades, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were the only organizations researching and raising awareness of systemic global supply chain issues. In order to advance the sustainability of supply chains, some NGOs began to partner with corporations. The partnership between Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is an example of how important NGOs are to companies that want to innovate their supply chains. WWF knew how to help Coca-Cola reduce the water footprint of their operations; Coca-Cola raised consumer awareness of the melting Arctic polar ice cap’s wildlife habitat impact like no NGO marketing campaign could.

Today, companies in every sector, including apparel, consumer products, pharmaceuticals and technology are seeking to green their supply chains. Some are also looking upstream, forcing their suppliers to meet their green supply chain standards. The most innovative companies are aiming for downstream, or customer, behavioral changes in how products are used.

Workers in sustainable supply chain management must be adept at negotiating supply chain complexities and creatively applying broad business and environmental knowledge. Weaving between profit-related subjects and environmental research generated by NGOs, they innovate cross-sector solutions seamlessly. These workers represent a new breed of eco-polymath and they are in demand.

Renee Gratton and Catherine Rust are greening one of the most challenging supply chains there is: the construction sector. Gratton, a pioneer in specialty sustainable products and environmental building education, founded the Ottawa-based Construction Resource Initiative (CRI) Council in 2011 and is now its president. Rust is vice-president, bringing substantive knowledge of environmental policy, science, marketing, recycling, and sustainable products to CRI. Both women hold the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED® AP) designation, which is widely recognized as an essential credential in green building.

Canada is among the largest per-capita landfill contributors in the industrialized world.

“Environmental literacy is needed across government, business and consumers, to meet the challenge,” explains Gratton, who has more than 30 years of experience in sustainable design and construction. “Landfills are municipal. The province is the regulator. And, materials are an international trade matter. The supply chain is ultimately international, with local and regional intricacies.”

Acknowledging this difficult truth, Gratton established the CRI Council to increase industry and public awareness of construction waste and introduce industry campaigns to improve waste-management standards for the sector.

In 2009, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was formally introduced to the construction sector by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). EPR is a waste management strategy used to embed the true downstream environmental cost of products into the supply chain and product price. The CCME’s Canada-Wide Action Plan for EPR requires companies handling renovations, demolition, large industrial and consumer textiles, appliances, and other aspects and materials of construction to meet progressively stringent EPR targets over the next decade and a half.

“Government can’t do this alone,” notes Gratton. “We are trying to understand the challenges in getting others on board with EPR in this sector: understanding, listening, respecting and building tools to help them. We are planning partnerships with industry to work on substantive projects.”

“Cities aren’t equipped to deal with the staggering volume of construction waste,” says Rust. “We need ‘zero waste’ practices and design strategies to improve deconstruction and reconstruction. That’s the only way we will reduce dependence on original resources and increase reuse of salvageable components and recycling of existing materials.”

Zero waste is the ultimate goal of industries striving to improve the sustainability of their supply chain. Rust explains the concept in the context of the construction sector: “The objective is zero-waste buildings in terms of construction and maintenance: net-zero water, net-zero energy and net-zero waste.”

Companies and NGOs know the sustainable supply-chain mission is challenging, so they are looking for creative and collaborative employees to develop new business models, processes and solutions. They need eco-polymaths with skill and vision, who understand environmental issues and the business context — and can persuade reluctant stakeholders to participate.

Natasha Milijasevic is a Toronto-based management consultant whose practice focuses on projects, processes, data, and how organizations can measure these to improve their social impact.  Her past research and publications span group psychology to business strategy.  

Wife, mother of two and occasionally exhibiting artist, Milijasevic also loves school: she has a BSc, MBA, PhD, and is going back for another one in health care analytics. Her degrees and consulting experience have taught her how to think about complex organizational and technology problems, but the perennials and butterflies in her garden help her to stop thinking about them.  

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