Medical expert: Let's get personal about business sustainability

White House health advisor Dean Ornish argues that for business sustainability to be successful, companies need to focus more on 'personal sustainability' and health of their employees.

SAN FRANCISCO - Don't overlook the importance of personal sustainability choices in the march to develop global business sustainability practices.

That was the dominant theme of a speech delivered to corporate sustainability and social responsibility executives and managers at BSR Conference 2011 by Dean Ornish, the founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, and a member of the The White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. Ornish insists in our rush to make everything from buildings, cars, houses, cities and companies more sustainable, we often overlook one of the first places to start.

"You must be personally sustainable to be globally sustainable," Ornish told the BSR Conference attendees in his lunchtime keynote address.

Ornish's speech, "What's Good for You Is Good for the Planet," discussed how individual food choices directly impact three major areas:

  • The energy crisis: Ornish claims that we use 10 percent less energy when creating food from plant protein than we do when creating animal protein.
  • The global warming crisis: Ornish cites figures showing that approximately 18 percent of all greenhouse gases emissions are related to food production, as opposed to 13 percent from the transportation sector. Why do we spend all our time worrying about the latter?
  • The health crisis: About 75 percent of the $2.5 trillion spend on healthcare is related to management of chronic conditions, according to Ornish's data.

So why bring all this up at a conference dedicated to corporate social responsibility issues and strategies?

For one thing, Ornish points to the need for companies in the food industry to help consumers make choices that will help prevent and treat health issues before they happen. "We need to focus not just on mopping up the floor, but on turning off the water," Ornish said, conjuring up the image of someone mopping up the floor next to a sink that is still overflowing.

It shouldn't surprise you, therefore, to hear that Ornish has worked with organizations such as PepsiCo, McDonalds and Mars to help shape their internal dialogues, strategies and policies around health and wellness. One of his biggest focuses in this work: showing businesses how they can use their internal cultures to guide employees and customers toward the right food and health choices. "The cultural within a company is huge," he said.

Yet, businesses have barely scratched the surface when it comes to linking the health and wellness programs within their own companies to their corporate sustainability and social responsibility initiatives.

Think about what your own company is doing:

  • Does it encourage or incent employees to exercise on a regular basis?
  • What sort of food is served on-site?
  • Does the corporate health plan support preventive health activities, rather than just chronic illness management?

One of the things that I personally enjoyed about Ornish's speech was his advocacy of "joy-based approaches" as a way to motivate behavioral changes. For example, a smoking advertisement that ties smoking to potential impotence (what, no sex!) is far more effective in getting people of any age to think twice about smoking, as opposed to fear-based marketing focused on death and disease. "Fear is not a sustainable motivator," he said.

So, if you make poor decisions about what to eat one day or skip the gym, don't lament. Push reset and get back on track the next day, Ornish said. Thank goodness.

More posts from BSR Conference 2011:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com