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Why Sustainability Matters to the Private Sector

Medellín-based utility company EPM Group explains how it benefits from a comprehensive approach to sustainability.

Medellín, Colombia at twilight. Photo and homepage photo courtesy of Flickr user robertschrader.

As a business, the EPM Group is a beneficiary of the broad municipal program of sustainability in which we participate.  A wholly owned utility company of the municipality of Medellín, we have benefited both locally and internationally from the progressive urban politics of Medellín. 

Until eight years ago, we were entirely local, but in recent years, our experience in Medellín has given us a competitive advantage across all public services (supplying clean water, light, gas and telecommunications) in the Department of Antioquia (where Medellín is located), four regions of Colombia and seven Latin American countries, serving 13 million clients.

This evolution has required us to reinvent ourselves in many ways; over the course of those changes, we have made sustainability our core objective. At the EPM Group, the meaning of sustainability has developed from the decades-old concept of “using resources adequately today so that future generations can survive as well,” to a much more comprehensive, committed and challenging vision.

In this sense, “comprehensive” includes social, environmental, economic, and financial perspectives.  Our commitment to this broader definition means that we not only seek to embody these elements in our own operation and the lives of our employees, but also for everyone we serve. 

Beyond Us

We understand at the EPM Group that we–like other companies, institutions and people—are responsible for our own behavior and the examples we provide for the broader public.

The first aspect of this responsibility is our need to depart from the managerial perspective under which dozens of generations of the world’s managers and directors were trained—which defined the objective of a company as “producing value for the owner.” Our new, preferred definition is “to produce value for all interest groups.”

From this flows a new characteristic of the EPM Group’s vision of sustainability: inclusion and respect for the interests of the society in which work and serve. In our new strategic direction for 2020, this principle is expressed as an overarching purpose: to build “competitive and sustainable territories.” In other words, to grow and to help others grow in the territories in which we operate.

This broader view of responsibility has an important effect on the management of the company, since it is the managerial team—including the board of directors—that must balance the interests of all stakeholders.

A second impact, and a consequence of the first, is the evolution of the EPM Group’s methods of evaluating its projects and operations. Social, economic, environmental, and financial evaluation must coexist in the business group, work together as elements of decision-making and serve as the means in which we operate and seek success.  From each of the ways we evaluate our performance comes a series of actions and consequences. The practice of evaluation becomes a continuous process of interaction among these perspectives, with the end goal of producing the greatest value for all.

In the case of the EPM Group, several questions have emerged: one regarding how we can understand our interest groups and their conception of value production. From the answer, we can determine how to engage with interest groups and society. By building upon a strong relationship based on trust and fairness, we can generate the discourse and relations necessary to bring together interests, as well as the mechanisms for evaluation and follow-up.

Another question regards the role of the State and to what point we should involve the government to address the needs of the community. This is particularly relevant because our owner is the State: the city of Medellín. We have come to the conclusion that we must not replace the duties of the State, but rather complement States to strengthen their policies and goals—in other words, to work as a team.

This not only applies to our work with the State, but is also our strategy for working with other local, regional and international actors. It suggests that the right way to improve the impact of organizations is to work as a team with other public and private agents.

A third dimension has to do with the need for the organization to have a separate office of sustainability or corporate social responsibility in charge of these matters. In our experience at the EPM Group, sustainability must first and foremost transcend the organization’s structure to become embedded in our culture and values—right down to the processes and criteria we apply to evaluation, decision-making and management. For this reason, we have an office in charge of overseeing this vision, defining its policies and verifying that it is incorporated into the organization’s daily operation.

At the end of the day, we are convinced that sustainability is not a fad.  To the contrary, it will continue to become an ever-more-valuable source of leverage—for EPM Group, for all our interest groups and for society.

Times like these—in which our planet’s future is in doubt and we recognize the impact that governments, businesses and people have had on its fragile state—demand joint, committed and long-term work to reduce our environmental impact and ensure the world’s healthy future.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user robertschrader.


Tags: Colombia, EPM Group, sustainability
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