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Someone You Should Know: John Nelson

John Nelson is an adjunct professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has been a practicing professional in the field of sustainability for over twenty-five years serving companies such as Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Genentech, Texaco and Pfizer to name a few. John is the Chairman of the Board of Visitors for the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and provides strategic sustainability intelligence and solutions guidance to both public and private organizations.

Here is his extended interview with Treacy Marketing Group.

What is your affiliation with The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and how did you get involved?
As an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I became aware of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. I am now serving as Chairman of the Board of Visitors. As a member of the faculty, environmental study and sustainability development was an area of interest for me. The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is a unique enterprise because most of the faculty is affiliated with other schools or institutions, making it a very diverse group.

In your own words, what do you think it means to be a sustainable business?
This question has a lot of layers but overall, a sustainable business is one that strikes an appropriate balance between economic reward and responsibility for the greater good. Dating back to the origin of English law, capitalism existed for the collective good; not to be organized around profitability. It’s important for businesses to get back to the idea of balancing the collective good with profitability.

In regards to environmental education, who is someone that you admire most?
John Elkington is an author that I admire. He wrote the book titled Cannibals with Forks. Elkington invented the idea of the triple bottom line: People, Planet and Profit. His ideas about sustainability and business provide insight into that balance I mentioned earlier about the collective good and profitability.

What are the competitive advantages of operating a sustainable business today?
Marketplace necessity is a competitive advantage because it implements sustainability requirements in a business. Also, if you’re a sustainable business, you’re taking a lot of risk out of your business because you’re developing a holistic mindset that is necessary to be a part of the supply chain.

With Earth Day around the corner, if you could educate businesses on one aspect of the environment, what would it be?
Energy Literacy. Much like many other Presidents, President Obama is proposing an energy policy that attempts to reduce our dependence on oil. However, the vast majority of people who promote information about energy are flawed in their facts. These conversations about energy do not have enough basic knowledge. Overall, I think there should be a collective increase in energy literacy among businesses in order for them to appropriately promote their conversations about energy.

If you had one wish for the environment, what would it be?
I’d like to see humans value consumption less. Did you know that we would need four planets to sustain our living standards? It’s hard for some people to say, “My decision makes an impact globally.” But, it does. The issue here is consumption, and we need a new attitude to develop a different standard of living.

How do you explain sustainability vs. sustainable living? What is green bling?
Sustainability is a utopian aspiration that becomes forgotten because people believe it’s theoretical and that nothing is permanent. I think of sustainability as an overarching idea, whereas sustainable living is only acting sustainable on a day-to-day basis. The term “green bling” simply refers to symbolism without substance.

In what ways can a company reduce its overall carbon footprint?
Travel less. Companies should also be looking at their physical footprint and asking themselves, “Do I really need to be this big?” Overall, occupy less space and buy less stuff.

What is one tactic of strategic sustainability that you believe is most impactful?
It’s how we define our standard of living. As of now, we define our standard of living through means of consumption and economic reward. But, we have to rethink this. Around the world, people have much more modest circumstances and are very happy with their standard of living.