We sat down with Jon Smieja, PhD, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Andersen Corporation, to chat about the state of sustainability in 2020 and where the industry headed in the future. He will also be speaking at Greenbuild International Conference & Expo Virtual this fall.

Check out our conversation with Jon below:

What is the biggest sustainability trend of 2020?

Wow, this is a tough question. 2020 has been such a challenging year. It is hard not to fall into a cynical spiral that overlooks all the great progress happening around us. For me there are two trends that, while different, are similarly important.

The first is the rise of the circular economy. While we have a long way to go in this regard, the number of companies thinking deeply about circular business models, products and solutions is exciting.

The second trend is the supercharged discussion around diversity, equity and inclusion in the sustainability arena. We saw this trend emerging over the previous several years, but the recent high-profile deaths of black Americans in our streets and in their homes has accelerated these discussions to a degree I didn’t think was possible even 6 months ago. Sustainability has been an area that has been far too white for too long, and it’s my hope that we make real change now to bring more diverse voices to these important discussions about our future.

What is the biggest sustainability innovation so far in 2020?

It may not be a singular innovation, but I have been impressed by continues gains in affordability of solar power and energy storage. This is not only a huge step in the march towards a clean energy economy, but also represents an opportunity to increase energy accessibility for people in developing nations that have, to date, not had adequate access to the electricity market by high costs and poor infrastructure. What we hear over an over now is that renewables are not only an environmentally sound investment, but one that has good economics

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected sustainability and/or green building?

The pandemic required companies to quickly shift their focus to safely managing their business though an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. While this resulted in other important work being paused, many of us in the corporate sustainability field are excited about the opportunity the recovery will present to rebuild the building industry in a stronger, more sustainable way. As we work to rebuild our economy and our companies, it’s important to focus on resilience and differentiation, both areas where sustainability plays a key role.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic shape the future of sustainability?

The pandemic and its following economic collapse has brought the opportunity for stakeholders to make a concerted effort in making sustainability a priority in their business. Sustainability can both save companies money and differentiate them against competitors. This pandemic has laid bare the flaws in our healthcare system, the racial opportunity divide, and other challenges in our society. I believe it is also bringing a reckoning about how our economic system undervalues the environment and my hope is that it will lead to systemic change.

Why is corporate social responsibility becoming more and more important?

In the last several years we’ve seen a lot of progress in corporate social responsibility. This could be the result of a culmination of many small steps over the last several decades, or it could be that we finally reached a tipping point where the cost to businesses of inaction became greater than the cost of action And while this process has been important, it is still not enough. It continues to be proven that doing good is good for business, and it is my hope that we will see this trajectory continue with increasing focus on long-term systemic change that results in better social, environmental and business outcomes for everyone.

Why is social equity so important today?

Social equity is finally reaching all the areas of the economy that have been slow to react to changing conditions. As the world (and the companies that operate within it) has begun to realize that a diversity of opinions, a diversity of backgrounds, and a diversity of people is important, we’ve all sought to find ways of incorporating these dimensions of diversity into our decision making.

How can sustainability and green building professionals help create a more circular economy?

As sustainability professionals, it is our responsibility to prove the business case for a circular economy. We must also be willing to present the circular economy as more than just circular products (recyclable, repairable, re-usable, etc.). For a circular economy to be realized, it must be built from the ground up using new business models and new ways of operating our businesses. Buildings, for example, could be designed with modularity, multiple uses, and end of life in mind from the early design phases.

It is also incumbent upon green building professionals to push for circular economy innovations from manufacturers and to make the case to their customers that more sustainable products and buildings are important.

What is your advice to fellow sustainability and/or green building professionals to make a positive impact in 2020?

Don’t waste this opportunity to make the change you want to see. Companies throughout the green building supply chain are rethinking things right now, and while it may seem like the wrong time to push sustainable innovation, we may never get this type of opportunity again to make the systematic change we need to see.

Where do you see sustainability going 10 years from now?

I’ve been doing corporate sustainability work now for almost a decade. In that time, I’ve been lucky enough to see the rise in product transparency, the growth of cutting-edge green building practices, and renewable energy shift from “the right thing to do” for the environment to the right thing to do for the bottom line. I’ve also seen the tidal shift from CFLs to LEDs, a rise in awareness around some of the worst acting chemicals in the building industry, and other advancements.

What we’ve yet to see, though, is the true democratization of sustainability. I’d like to see an economy where safe, durable products with low environmental impact are developed by and available to everyone.

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