When it comes to sustainability, why be neutral when you can be positive?

India's conglomerate, ITC, says it has been carbon-positive, waste-positive and waste-positive for at least three years. Its latest sustainability report describes that journey in detail.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Right at the beginning of the year, I spent an hour chatting up a huge Indian conglomerate that already describes itself as carbon-positive, water-positive and waste-recycling positive. What's more, it has been able to make that claim for the past three years—across an enormous variety of business interests from hotel chains to agribusiness.

That company, India's ITC, didn't just manage these sorts of results overnight. It has spent a large part of its 100 years of existence operating in the sorts of ways that we now describe as corporate sustainability strategy. It was sustainable before it was in vogue to be sustainable, because it made sense for it to operate that way. ITC's efforts are covered in deep detail in its latest sustainability report, a report that not only complies with the Global Reporting Initiative's G3 reporting guidelines, it earns an A+ rating for application levels. (Believe me, this is probably the most detailed sustainability report that I have ever read, yet it mostly manages not to be terribly confusing or dense.)

First, for those of you unfamiliar with ITC, let me describe some of its businesses, because it makes ITC's ability to push into the carbon-positive, water-positive and waste-positive side of the sustainability equation all the more intriguing. When I spoke with L.N. Balaji, president of the ITC Infotech portion of ITC's business, he told me that ITC is (in its own right) the largest consumer products company in India. It runs a hotel chain that encompasses 100 hotels in 80 locations -- including the largest LEED Platinum certified hotel property, the ITC Hotel Royal Gardenia. ITC also runs a paperboard and packaging operation, agribusiness unit and an information technology services unit (the aforementioned ITC Infotech).

From the company's sustainability report:

"It is our firm belief that by integrating larger societal goals in our business models, we no only build stronger foundations for the future sustainability of the company but also ensure that societal benefits are more scalable and more impactful."

So, back to the headline of this story: why be neutral, when you can be positive? How can ITC make these claims? Here are some more details:

  • On being carbon-positive: ITC actually reports that it is now sequestering or storing twice the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that it emits. It isn't just one thing that has helped it to get there. For one thing, approximately 31 percent of the total energy consumed by the company is from renewable sources. Another major factor has been ITC's social and farm forestry initiatives, which added 13,333 hectares of plantations during 2009-2010. These planting efforts have helped push ITC into its carbon-positive claim AND they have also provided a source of raw material for ITC's paperboard and specialty papers business.
  • On being water-positive: ITC has made this claim for eight consecutive years, pointing to its efforts to create three times more rainwater harvesting potential than the net water consumed by ITC's operations. Balaji notes that much of the rainfall in India comes during a 45-day window in certain parts of the country, so ITC has invested in creating water harvesting facilities that bring more water resources to the communities in which it operates than the company actually uses. Check.
  • On being waste-positive: Not only has ITC focused on recycling its own paper and fly ash (which can be used in bricks) has begun buying other company's waste paper to use in its paperboard operations. That's why it can make the waste-positive claim.

As it turns out, Balaji says technology is the linchpin for many of the company's most impactful sustainability initiatives.

One clear example is the company's e-Choupal initiative, a program that supports its agribusiness interests by connecting rural farmers not just with ITC but with each other. Balaji says e-Choupal provides better information about weather, farming practices and, of course, the pricing that they can expect to earn for different crops. "It has helped them become more enlightened participants," he told me during our chat.

Technology clearly has been massively relevant when it comes to the comprehensiveness of ITC's ability to ingrain sustainability metrics into its day-to-day operations. That is one of the skills that ITC Infotech is willing to share with other companies, for a price of course. "We can say we have done this," Balaji says.

While you won't find ITC Infotech telling other companies which sustainability measures are "right," you will find it at the center of burgeoning efforts among some of the world's largest companies to p provide better operational metrics. So, the company is focused on bringing assessment, carbon footprinting and reporting techniques to its clients, Balaji says.

"We don't preach to any company what its sustainability should be," he says. "We never belittle any effort to be green."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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