Building a Better World
|By Bob Uhler, President/CEO, MWH Global, Inc.|
Corporate America is awash in the green movement. Homebuilders are increasingly incorporating energy-efficient lighting and recycled materials into their structures. Automobile manufacturers are building hybrid vehicles that are very efficient and can burn cleaner sources of fuel. And, firms around the world in virtually every industry seem to be focused on reducing their carbon emissions. To be sure, these are all good and admirable efforts.
People in our company have chosen this profession – as environmental engineers and consultants – because they aspire to create a sustainable future for this planet, our children and the generations that will follow. Our purpose – Building a Better World – is embedded in our corporate culture and everything we do. We reaffirm our purpose every day in 35 countries across six continents, where more than 6,000 MWH team members help businesses, municipalities and governments solve some of the world’s most complex challenges in an environmentally responsible manner.
Our company’s passionate pursuit of sustainability – both for us and for our clients around the globe – has been a commitment and journey well worth the effort. Our customers are happier. Our workers are more engaged, and our recruitment efforts have been made easier. Our business has been bolstered.
But these sorts of transformations don’t happen overnight – at least they didn’t for MWH. And considering that we are an environmental engineering firm, sustainability has, at least to some degree, been ingrained in our DNA for more than 160 years. Yet despite our heritage, the seeds of our current push toward sustainability were planted within just the past 18 months.
For the most part, we allow MWH country companies around the globe to operate as independently as possible. At the same time, our home office provides a uniform framework for accounting, marketing and the sharing of knowledge. The reason for this approach is simple: What works in Australia doesn’t necessarily work in England, and what works in England doesn’t necessarily work in the United States. And, until recently, that’s how our company approached sustainability. While our teams in Australia and Europe were the first to embrace sustainability, their American counterparts took a more tempered approach.
In early 2007 I, along with our executive team, decided to formalize our sustainability efforts across our entire organization. The spark came in part during the Clinton Global Initiative, a conference of leaders from the political, corporate and philanthropic arenas, which took place in late 2006. During dinner one evening, as I visited with other attendees, I started talking with the CEO of a prominent technology company. The executive, whose company was many times larger than ours, said to me, “I wish I had your company.” Surprised by his remark, I asked why. He said, “Because your company can make a real difference. It has the global reach; it has the technology; it has the credibility; and it has the passion. You can be an advocate for change while my company produces products.”
With that as inspiration, our company set out to develop a multi-year, multi-faceted program aimed at driving adoption of sustainable practices throughout every division of our firm. We decided that combating climate change plus raising awareness of its causes and effects would be our primary focus. To spearhead the effort, we created a new executive position, director of sustainable development, and we developed a climate change committee composed of MWH engineers, sustainability experts and business executives.
Our next step was to look in the mirror. We analyzed, measured and devised strategies to cut our carbon emissions by 15 percent – an ambitious yet achievable goal. We adopted ways to make our air travel more sustainable. We made a $1.5 million capital investment to improve our video conferencing capabilities. We moved one of our key global meetings from Singapore to Orlando, Fla., a decision that reduced our travel-related carbon emissions for the annual event by as much as 40 percent because many of the attendees were based in the United States.
Next, we turned to our corporate cars and ordered that all replacements to our fleet of 500 conventional vehicles must be fuel-efficient hybrids. We also examined where we worked and the materials we used for our projects. We set stringent, uniform guidelines for our supply-chain managers to follow. As a result, we began using more environmentally friendly materials on the job site. And as our company grows and we need more space, we have adopted a policy to sign leases only in buildings that are certified under the federal LEED program. We have more to do to get our own house in order, but we think this is a good start.
In the communities where we work, we are also developing a program to offset some of the carbon emissions produced by our projects. We’ve committed to planting 100 trees in each city where we operate, and we invite our clients to join in and to plant 100 more. The program not only mitigates our environmental impact and improves the cities where our clients work and play; it has proved to build camaraderie among our workers. Without question, this is a win-win proposition for our company, our clients and our communities.
While all of these efforts are laudable, we also recognize that we can accomplish more by working together with elected leaders, municipal officials, academic researchers and private industry. That’s why we host and participate in workshops, including ones in New York, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Chicago and other cities, to discuss climate change as united environmental stewards and to share best practices. We were an early sponsor of The Climate Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing business and government leadership on climate change.
In addition, we also developed a worldwide program for middle-school students which provided them with education about the water cycle, energy use and climate change. The idea is to empower youngsters with information, to encourage them to pursue careers in science and engineering and, hopefully, to help spark the bright leaders of tomorrow who can solve the problems of today. The program has been translated into three languages, and we expect to roll it out to 150 classrooms by the end of 2008.
I recognize that the work we’ve done at MWH is a small step in the worldwide effort to combat climate change and to promote sustainability. The consumption of energy and the emission of carbon dioxide in fast-growing countries such as China and India will continue during the foreseeable future. No one company or government can change this. But I’m also an optimist. For 30 years, I’ve worked in the environmental engineering industry watching the profession grow in importance and sophistication. I’ve also seen the United States make significant strides as a result. We’ve provided clean drinking water and safe places for our children to swim by cleaning up our rivers and bays. We’ve enacted regulations that restrict the release of air pollutants to ensure we have fresh air to breathe. And we have helped develop technologies, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power, which can reduce our reliance on relatively dirtier sources of energy.
Climate change is no longer a political issue; it is a global issue. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have come forward to push for change. If the will and the resources are there, I am certain that the nation’s engineers can solve any technical problems we encounter. I am both fortunate and proud to be part of a company and an industry that has an opportunity to make a positive difference in responding to climate change today, tomorrow and in the decades to come.Issue No. 2, 2008
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