When companies use some sort “sustainability filter,” it helps make the concept real and find opportunities for efficiency says Roberta Bowman, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for Duke Energy.

Roberta Bowman, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Duke Energy.

Duke Energy, a Charlotte, N.C.-based electric power company that supplies and delivers energy to approximately 4 million U.S. customers, uses something it calls the Duke Energy Sustainability Filter to encourage innovation and resource efficiency throughout the company (see a one-page pdf outlining the filter from the company’s 2008-08 Sustainability Report).

Roberta Bowman, who has served as senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for Duke Energy since 2006, says that the filter is a lens through which every decision in the company is made. "It’s is the tool for conversation and decision-making," she says. The filter employs a series of questions around four key areas: "connection," "efficiency," "balance," and "grandchildren."

The filter is one of the tools Duke shares with other organizations looking to evaluate thier own risks and practices from a sustainability standpoint. "There is an openness to sharing approaches and techniques that work," says Bowman. "There is sharing and learning at an industry level, and also at a global industry level, from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to Corporate Eco Forum."

Bowman has been with Duke Energy since 1986 after eight years at Northeast Utilities. She spoke with Michael S. Hopkins, editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, about how sustainability can become, as she puts it, "a discipline that allows us to see opportunities for efficiency that more traditional line of business or functional orientations might miss."

How have the ways that you are thinking about sustainability changed in the past year or two, in light of the economic travail we’ve all been going through?

In the economically challenging environment that we’re in, there is really no room for activities that are not core to the business. We have had to do some triage of our corporate services and corporate programs and separate those that are "nice to do" from those that are "necessary to do." And we have found that that has given us an opportunity to really showcase the business value of sustainability.

Some of the greatest potential benefits are in identifying opportunities for resource and cost efficiency.