Susan Burns measures the ecological footprint of business

Susan Burns, CEO of Global Footprint Network, explains how the ‘ecological footprint’ can make businesses – and the world – more sustainable.

Susan Burns: Ecological pressures are really going to be shaping the landscape of business in the future.

Susan Burns is CEO of the Global Footprint Network, a think tank that advocates an environmental accounting tool that can help businesses measure and budget their use of the Earth’s natural resources. They call it the ‘ecological footprint.’ She will be speaking at the Sustainable Brands Conference in June in Monterey, CA.

Susan Burns: The footprint is broken down into the different types of pressures we put on the planet. You can measure footprint of literally every part of your operation.

The idea, she said, is that companies will be able to see how much of Earth’s forests, croplands, or energy they consume, in contrast to how much the Earth is able to provide each year. It could help companies figure out more efficient ways to do business.

Susan Burns: A lot of companies look at the product life-cycle of their products. So you want to take a look at not only the manufacturing of the product, but all the raw materials in the supply chain that feeds that product, as well as what happens when the product is sold and it’s disposed of.

Burns said that as businesses cut down their use of Earth’s resources, they enable their customers to have a smaller impact on the planet.

Susan Burns: A lot of people want to live more sustainable lifestyles, but they don’t have choices. Businesses can also make it easier for people. Currently, humanity is in about 40% ecological overshoot. That means that humanity uses 40% more every year than nature provides.

The ecological footprint uses the comparison of how many Earths it would take to supply humanity’s pace of consumption.

Susan Burns: If we look at current trends, if we stay on course with business as usual, by 2050 we’ll need the capacity of 2 planets. And we know that that’s going to be physically impossible.

Burns explained that nature can supply only so much human demand for resources before it starts hitting ecological limits.

Susan Burns: It’s like cutting down more forest than the forest can regrow. As we’re pushing up against these ecological limits, all sorts of things are playing out in the marketplace. How is that going to affect what your customers are going to want? How is that going to affect costs of raw materials?

She said that these ecological pressures have already begun to shape the business landscape – with sustainably-minded companies becoming more successful.

Susan Burns: If you look at the auto industry, for example, the U.S. auto industry has not responding to this new landscape in terms of investing in energy efficient cars, whereas Japan has. So you can see that playing out in the marketplace.

She spoke about the findings of a global business study that the Global Footprint Network participated in.

Susan Burns: We got companies together to map out what it would take to reach a one planet economy by 2050. We found, number one, there’s a lot of things businesses can do. There is a strong role for business, a very strong role for business. And number two, there’s huge opportunities in terms of providing the products of the future, solutions only business can do.

Special thanks today to Sustainable Life Media.

Susan Burns will be speaking at the 2010 Sustainable Brands Conference, June 7-10th in Monterey, California. Where the Sustainability & Brand & Design Communities Come Together to Build Brand Leadership.

Lindsay Patterson