Steve Washburn: Working To Do More Than Earn A Profit

In an increasingly innovative society, a company’s ability to differentiate itself from the competition depends more and more on their efforts in sustainable production. The public’s awareness of environmentally friendly products has driven companies to weigh the effects of what they do to the environment in conjunction with economic costs.

Steve Washburn, of Ramboll Environ, has worked for over 30 years in this field and has witnessed the changes in consumer demand. We asked Washburn to measure the progress that has been made in sustainability since he began working at Environ. To answer this question, he points to a junior year project he was working on during his education at Princeton. Part of this project, he says, was to “look at what Princeton was doing in waste minimization (what we now call sustainability), energy use, waste disposal, and managing types of materials consumed.” He says that it was really difficult to find any data collected by the school on these areas. At the time, awareness around energy usage and consumption was secondary to economic profit. Since then, however, this awareness has become integrated into what companies do, dramatically progressing the movement for change.

While long-term effects of chemicals in the environment on human health is harder to measure, Washburn says both acute and long-term impacts on the environment can be determined by looking at bird, bees, and fish populations.

A defining moment in his career was early on, while he was an intern at Environ, sitting in on a meeting beside the President of Environ at the time. They were meeting with a company who had unintentionally disposed of waste in an improper manner, polluting the New Jersey area it was contained in.  It would cost the company a lot to take out the implanted drums from the ground, so the company proposed looking into alternatives for removal that cost less. The President’s response to this proposal was that it would be unconscionable to leave the drums in the ground, and it simply wasn’t an option. That meeting, and specifically the simple response to a potentially complex situation, set the tone for Washburn’s own conversations to come with numerous displeased clients.

In fact, his message is this: “Working in the environmental field, sometimes it feels like you’re giving people news that they don’t want to hear, but it really is in their interest, and in everyone’s interest [for that matter] in the long term.” In his position as a consultant for Ramboll Environ, it is his job to be honest with his clients about where they need to go, not necessarily to work with them on where they want to go currently.

In order to do this successfully, Washburn advises individuals to live in a way that is consistent with their values. The advancements that have been made in the field of sustainability could have been lost had companies like Ramboll made decisions based solely on potential for financial profit. However, the outcomes of tough decisions are what separate innovative companies from the mold.