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Viewpoint: Sustainability today’s top buzzword

Liz Engel Clark
Thursday, May 2, 2013

I’m not a big fan of buzzwords, but there’s one in particular that seems to keep popping up – thus far, multiple times in several interviews this year – that I can’t help but address it: “sustainability.” It’s loosely defined as the ability to maintain at a certain rate or level. To use a resource so not to permanently deplete.

But what does it really mean, all this talk about sustainability? Is it just like other big keywords of the past – “green,” in particular, comes to mind – or does it carry more weight than that? And, most importantly, as a business leader, why should you care?

Well, for one, sustainability, at its very core, can save costs and improve bottom lines. Plus, it’s all the rage in economic development. The state of Tennessee now has a sustainable communities program. Larger cities have entire departments devoted to the sustainable, like in Knoxville, where there’s an officially dubbed “Office of Sustainability.” And, locally, there’s several sustainable projects underway: the Highlands Business Park in Cookeville/Putnam County is said to be sustainable – when finished. The Walton Road Scenic Byway, which runs the gamut of several UC counties along historic U.S. Highway 70 North, is said to be sustainable, too. Nearly every business sector – from education to health care to manufacturing – is looking for ways – you guessed it – to become more sustainable.

“We need to be doing sustainable economic development,” said Melinda Keifer, economic and community development coordinator for Cookeville, when I interviewed her about the business park in January. “If you look up the definition, it’s something that you can count on being there (forever). We’re such a sound bite, hot tip of the day society, that it’s real easy to get caught up in that, but we can’t be out there willy, nilly, here’s a blank check, now bring us 200 jobs. That’s not sustainable.”

She confirmed that sustainability has became a new buzzword of sorts: where the use of the term “green” once made you a “hippie,” “tree-hugging” freak, “sustainable” seems to have taken its place. And that’s not surprising. Most references to sustainability do tie back to the environment in some way – the Knoxville department, for example, defines sustainability, in a quiet textbook-like manner, I might add, “as the ability to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” And to further define its mission, that department has installed charging stations, brought curbside recycling to residents and added solar panels to the Knoxville convention center, among other projects. All things that seem green, right?

But sustainability can apply to other areas, too, like tourism, one of the few higher performing business sectors for the local economy in the past few years. Take Kwill Consultants, which I featured in February. The startup company, headed by former Upper Cumberland Development District (UCDD) employees Dawn Kupferer and Randy Williams, is working with area chambers specifically on a number of sustainable tourism projects. They would probably argue that tourism is the MOST sustainable business sector for our region. The Walton Road Scenic Byway is a good case study for that.

“Scenic byways, in today’s economic climate, are among the single most important planning tools that you can have, from a sustainable tourism perspective,” Williams said. “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the best thing to come out of a scenic byway (like the Walton Trail)?’ Well, other than the obvious, it’s the corridor management plan,” which includes a massive inventory of the natural and cultural resources along the route, that, if a community hired an outside firm to compile, Williams said, would cost buckets and buckets of money. It’s those natural and cultural resources that attract visitors to our area, that make us unique and special and put the UC in the spotlight.

So, you, business owner, should care A LOT about sustainability. And, go ahead, jump on the bandwagon. Everyone else already has.

“I think there’s a lot more people who are really getting plugged into ways to do sustainable development,” Williams added. “As far as the tourism perspective, every study that I know of, in the last 20 years, all of them indicate, in the Upper Cumberland, that’s what we have to develop, that’s what we have to sell is our natural and cultural resources. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Liz Engel Clark is the editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. She can be reached at (931) 528-8852 or

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Jeff Roberts
Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 12:36 PM
It can also lead to mindless "The Emperor's New Clothes" situations - it is a TOOL, not an empire.