The EPA and Sustainability: The Re-Branding of an Agency

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By John Lehnert

What does the future hold for the EPA? From what I’ve observed, it’s trying to build sustainability into its foundations—and to reflect that shift in its branding.  As I heard recently at the Sustainable Corporation conference in Santa Clara, CA, a key part of that effort is now in high gear. Dr Alan Hecht, EPA’s director for sustainable development in its R&D office, described a report due this summer from the National Academies of Science that will address how to build an “operational framework for sustainability” at the EPA.

Drawing from Administrator Lisa Jackson’s  remarks last November, Hecht  noted that this effort does not represent a project or program; rather, it’s a new approach. The NAS report will (among other goals) address how risk management, the traditional underpinning of EPA decision-making, fits into this sustainability framework. But looking at other EPA publicity, what’s really going on is nothing less than a re-branding of the agency:  from regulator and enforcer of pollution rules, to leader and advocate for how businesses and communities can thrive by acting more sustainably.

Consider Jackson’s recent speeches and the EPA’s latest initiatives. In January 2011, Jackson announced a new water quality research program—trumpeted on the EPA website as “New Partnerships for America’s Health and Economy.”  The program will bring together EPA researchers with entrepreneurs. Last October, Jackson highlighted investments made under a joint program with DOT and HUD, described as “Working Together on Sustainable Growth for American Communities.”  A year ago, Jackson spoke to the National Press Club about how “Environmental Protection is Good for Economic Growth.”  Finally, as Jackson said in her speech announcing the NAS effort:

We’re ready to build upon the reactive responses – banning, reducing, lessening and minimizing risk – while we work toward the proactive efforts: creation, innovation, synergy and sustainability.

We can applaud the shift in approach on its own merits: it represents more systemic and integrated thinking. Taking a cue from Bill McDonough: managing pollution merely by punitive action at the “end of the pipe” is way too late. Better, by far, to get companies to design toxics out of products altogether.

The sustainability branding may actually strengthen the EPA’s  leverage to carry out its mandates. Having pulled back on recent regulatory efforts, and having endured attacks for plans to regulate CO2, the expanded scope could help EPA reposition itself as a champion of business innovation and success –thus no longer merely correcting harmful activities. The prevalence of business-friendly language in EPA statements (and in quotes and tweets on the administrator’s page) confirm the repositioning is already going on: sustainability is in there, comingled with innovation and growth.

As the release of the NAS report approaches, we’ll hopefully see more about sustainability and its connection to business success.  A place to start is the EPA home page: sustainability is but a drop-down under Science & Technology, and then further split between two subpages. It doesn’t make the cut for current issues.  Another opportunity is to connect it with the administrator’s Seven Priorities:  Climate change, air quality, chemical safety, community clean-up, water protection, environmental justice, and state/tribal partnerships. In the meantime, with Administrator Jackson and Dr. Hecht promoting the new approach, the repositioning is starting to take hold. Let’s hope they make it stick.

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