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CE3 executive-in-residence makes the case for sustainability

Austin Stahl January 31, 2013

CE3 Zimmer Sustainability Jan 2013

Ohio University faculty, staff, students and members of the Athens community crowded into the Friends of the Library Room on Wednesday, January 23 for a discussion on sustainability in the private sector by Mike Zimmer.

Zimmer is an executive-in-residence at Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and a practicing lawyer at Thompson Hine LLP. Specializing in energy and environmental practices, Zimmer has been a noted national lecturer on energy issues since 1978, authored and edited various books and publications, sat on multiple corporate boards, and served as the national head of the American Bar Association's national renewable energy committee. Over the past 30 years, he has worked with hundreds of clients and been involved in more than $13 billion of energy financing.

Wednesday's presentation, entitled "Sustainability: Stewardship, the Economy, and Why Bother?" focused on sustainability trends in the private sector and the larger global forces that are reshaping the way we do business.

Zimmer discussed corporate trends, including a shifting business model that "closes the loop," in effect reducing waste, energy and emissions by better utilizing materials and making industrial processes more efficient. He also talked about how companies with stronger sustainability practices are outperforming their competition by securing debt at a lower rate, having higher stock values, and being more attractive to a talented, young workforce. Zimmer cited Ford, Chipotle, Dell, Starbucks, AT&T and Johnson & Johnson as companies that made strides to improve environmentally in August 2012 alone.

"We're going to be required to separate from our past, based on the old capitalist business manufacturing model," Zimmer said. "That [model] has provided a relative comfort zone. That's why each year you are more uncomfortable, more stressed. It is ultimately a global imperative."

CE3 Zimmer Sustainability Jan 2013

Another trend in the private sector is companies looking beyond merely gross national product (GNP) and gross domestic product (GDP) as the only measures of success, and taking a more holistic approach that examines social and environmental consequences. He said problems arise from narrow metrics that lead to externalized costs, citing cheap energy from coal and nuclear as examples.

"If you don't price it properly, you don't pay for it properly," Zimmer said. "And if you don't pay for it properly, you use it improperly."

He stressed that by transforming our business model, we are paving the way for a better future—noting that consequences will result if we maintain the status quo.

"We are at the cusp of managing that transformation of change in fighting the 'third world war.' What is the business model, the economic model, the environmental model moving forward?" Zimmer said.

When discussing global forces, Zimmer spoke of the rising middle classes in developing countries, particularly China and India, and the rapid urbanization being seen around the world today. To keep pace with these trends, he said the U.S. will have to make significant improvements in three key sectors to flourish: transportation, buildings, and our industrial processes.

According to Zimmer, investing in our own aging infrastructure provides us with the opportunity to modernize and change the way we build, pointing out that 49.1% of new electricity generation in 2012 in the U.S. was from renewables and $1.9 trillion is expected to be spent on clean energy by 2018.

While many of the environmental challenges we face such as climate change and resource depletion are immense, Zimmer emphasized framing them as opportunities.

"These great opportunities are described as insoluble problems," Zimmer said. "Never forget that it was the amateur that built the ark and the professional that built the titanic."