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It’s easy being green. Sustainability is the hard part.

Green Green is a big buzzword in business these days, and why not? With the state of the planet on everyone's mind and an environmentally conscious president in the White House, everyone is viewing the world through green-colored glasses these days.

But in their bid to help the environment, a lot of businesses are being hit with a surprising fact: There's more to going green than throwing a few solar panels on the roof. A lot more.

So says Gary Langenwalter.

As managing partner of Sustainability Partners International, Langenwalter says businesses should aim for more than just being green. The ultimate goal, he said in a recent phone conversation, is sustainability, a notion whose "triple bottom line" focuses on profit, the planet and people. In other words, these companies are helping the environment, the community and the bottom line at the same time. Lose any one of those things, and you lose any hope of achieving sustainability.

Langenwalter offers a number of definitions for sustainability, but the one I like best comes from the United Nations: Sustainability gives us the opportunity to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

"Businesses tend to believe two things that are incorrect," Langenwalter says. "One is that sustainability equals green. To me, sustainability is bigger than just green. The other is that green costs money: 'We can't make money being green; it's just a direct drain on the financial bottom line.' That is not correct, but that is the perceived wisdom. Trying to get through those two perceptions and have a dialogue of what is possible is the most difficult step in our sustainability journey."

To hear Langenwalter explain it, profit is the easy part. "Planet" and "people" are the hard parts of the sustainability equation. A sustainable business works in harmony with nature -- by producing more energy that it uses, for example, or by using more waste than it produces -- and by being a good neighbor by helping its community thrive and prosper as well.

And though no company has obtained true sustainability yet, lots of them are on their way. I wanted to know what they were doing to get there, but Langenwalter stopped me and suggested that what they're doing isn't nearly as interesting as why they are doing it.

Take Nike. Its sweatshop scandal of the late 1990s embarrassed the corporate brass into cleaning up its act and becoming a leading voice in social responsibility. Wal-Mart did much the same thing after its own employees complained of the company's labor practices.

"Why they do it, to me, shapes how they do it," Langenwalter says. "If someone has just been fined within an inch of their life by the EPA, they're going to start cleaning up the environmental side. If they've just been sued for labor-law violations, they're going start cleaning up the social side."

In other words, sometimes it takes a crisis to bring about meaningful change.

Langenwalter offered lots of additional insights during our conversation. You can hear all of them in this CPA Spotlight podcast.

More at the Expo
Langenwalter will discuss sustainability in debth at the second Maryland Business and Accounting Expo, scheduled for June 16-17 at the Baltimore Convention Center. Get complete details and register here.

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Bill Sheridan