Corporate Sustainability, with Mel Wilson, PhD

Parvati Magazine spoke with Mel Wilson, PhD, Partner and National Leader, Sustainable Business Solutions at PwC Canada,  to ask him about his work helping organizations manage their environmental and sustainability performance.

Parvati Magazine: How does corporate sustainability relate to corporate responsibility and why does sustainability matter?

Mel Wilson: I would argue corporate sustainability is a subset of corporate responsibility. Corporate responsibility deals with the big question, “If a company is a legal entity, what are its ethical obligations?” This question covers a wide array of ethical obligations: obligations to shareholders, employees, competitors, society in general, even the natural world. It’s an interesting philosophical question. Corporate sustainability is along the same lines, but deals with the question, “What does a company need to do to minimize or offset its negative impacts on the environment and society?” While the question has an ethical underpinning, the answer can often be more be technical and quantitative than philosophical. An example is the idea of a company having a zero carbon footprint. There’s a lot of math involved in that calculation. So corporate sustainability involves measuring one’s impact and figuring out ways to minimize or neutralize those impacts.

PMAG: What are the roots of your passion for this field?

MW: I grew up in rural Prince Edward Island, a naturally beautiful area. My parents had stopped farming and let much of their land revert back to bush and woodland. It was my playground, with a little creek running through the back 40 and everything. That instilled in me a love of nature. Growing up in the 70s and 80s when there were growing concerns about pollution, made me a passionate environmentalist. I did my undergraduate degree in biology where I enjoyed courses in ecology and wildlife management. By grad school, my interest had expanded from wildlife and ecosystems to environmental law and pollution management, and that’s where my career started.

PMAG: How have you seen corporate attitudes towards sustainability change over the years?

MW: Sustainability has become mainstream, which sounds boring but is actually a good thing. As recently as the late 1990s, very few Alberta companies would even say the word ‘sustainability’, and many thought it was just public relations BS. But then sustainable companies started outcompeting their peers on many fronts, including attracting customers and capital. Now most companies have Sustainability or Corporate Responsibility Departments, and boards of directors will have Sustainability subcommittees.

PMAG: What impact have you seen from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), and what more do you hope for?

MW: The SDGs came into effect January 1, 2016 and have been quickly embraced in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, but not so much yet in North America. But the SDG wave is on its way. What I hope to see is companies, governments and not-for-profits using the SDGs as frameworks for collaboration on sustainability issues. If we pooled the talent and resources we have just here in Alberta, just think of the advancements we could make in everything from education to clean technology to health care.

PMAG: Where do you believe the field is heading?

MW: Personally, I think the future looks bright. Not because of what the current generation is doing, but what future generations will be able to do. Today’s children know much more about the world than my generation did when we were young. Today’s 8-year-old can visit any city, any museum, any historic site and virtually every library in the world, without leaving their house, simply by getting on the internet. And they love to share information and ideas with each other. Imagine the possibilities! The next generation will look at the last 100 years and see so many mistakes in how we treated the planet and each other. I think they will learn from this, and find ways to live far more sustainably and peacefully than the recent past generations.

Mel WilsonMel Wilson, PhD Partner and National Leader, Sustainable Business Solutions at PwC Canada, has spent the last 25 years helping organizations understand, manage, measure and report on their environmental and sustainability performance. Mel has worked with countless leading companies across many industries in Canada, USA, Mexico, and many European and Middle Eastern countries, as well as all three levels of government in Canada. You can learn more about his work and sustainability on his LinkedIn blog posts.