It’s a Good Thing: SFU’s Stephanie Bertels brings sustainability to corporate boardrooms

Our new column catches up with SFU's Stephanie Bertels, whose Embedding Project makes sustainability much more than a corporate buzzword

Credit: Suharu Ogawa

The Embedding Project helps organizations address environmental and social considerations

When Stephanie Bertels walks into the fourth-floor boardroom of SFU‘s Segal Graduate School of Business in downtown Vancouver, the diminutive scholar is in full outdoor apparel, wearing a tuque and winter jacket, and seemingly shrinking into her woollen cowl. It’s a beautiful sunny December day, but the drafty former Bank of Montreal building is letting in a lot of outside chill. “They won’t let us put plastic film over the window frames—so here we are, freezing.”

The Ottawa native, an associate professor in the Beedie School of Business and director of SFU‘s Centre for Corporate Governance and Sustainability, may hold little sway over energy efficiency in her own office. But she and her team of nine are having a profound impact on both the research and practice of sustainability— environmental as well as social and economic—and influencing boardrooms from Vancouver to New York to Cape Town.

Bertels is founding director of the Embedding Project, a collaborative effort by academia (led by SFU) and industry to embed sustainability in organizations. To date, the project has more than a dozen North American partners—companies ranging from B.C. mining giant Teck to TD to online marketplace Etsy—as well as another 10 around the world.

While the weight of the original work—and Bertels’ own academic and professional background (she spent six years at environmental consulting firm Golder Associates)—was in the extractive industries, the Embedding Project has greatly expanded its scope since launching in November 2009. Jamie Gray-Donald is VP, sustainability, at QuadReal Property Group—representing a sector not automatically associated with the cause. But for the Vancouver-based real estate company—with a $24.5-billion portfolio in 23 cities across 17 countries—having a comprehensive approach to sustainability is critical, linking everything from efficiency to engagement, health and innovation.

“The Embedding Project is not about making companies look good, or delivering on short-term targets,” Gray-Donald says. “The organization is a diamond-in-the-rough that helps companies prioritize pathways to becoming effective—and break out of expansive reporting frameworks.”

And that’s the sweet spot for Bertels: to provide a clear public good while also being useful. “Industry partners told us: ‘We don’t want another laundry list of things we should be doing. We want something that actually helps us think about how we should go about this.'”

Bertels and her team prove their utility by working with partners to do practices assessments (helping them understand where they’re making progress, where they need to fill in the gaps); facilitating regional peer-to-peer networks (where companies that have undergone the practices assessment meet to discuss relevant issues and set priorities for the year); and establishing Communities of Practice (CoPs), where Bertels’ researchers connect companies grappling with similar issues and help to build resources and tools they can put to effective use.

One current CoP, Storytelling for Sustainability, focuses on the importance of stories in communicating organizational priorities. If leaders are to truly embed sustainability in their organization, Bertels says, they need to lift it off the pages of the annual report and turn it into flesh and blood: “How do you change the stories that get told in terms of what’s considered ‘heroic’ within the organization? And how do you start to insert environmental and social considerations into those narratives?”

Industry partners pay for the practices assessments and to participate in the peer-to-peer networks. But the deal, says Bertels, is that all that information will ultimately be made available for public consumption.

The goal is to sow the seeds of change and add to the number of universities that use Embedding Project material in MBA courses, Bertels says. “We want to develop more resources to support that so that we can get this embedded thinking into business curriculum—and to shape how leaders of the future are going to think about their businesses.”

A better way

Vancouver’s QuadReal Property Group, an influential partner of the Embedding Project, has incorporated these four pillars of sustainability into its business