Fastlane

March 31, 2014

GM’s Sustainability Manager Navigates the Intersection of Ecology and Industry

Growing up with the environment on her mind, Amanda Kurzman's day-to-day work finds her focusing on the interests she had as a teen.

To hear Amanda Kurzman tell the story of how she grew up, it’s no wonder she eventually found her way to working in sustainability for General Motors.

As a child, she was never far from the environment.

Kurzman spent three weeks every summer vacationing with her family on the Old Mission Peninsula, a piece of land that juts out into Grand Traverse Bay, just north of Traverse City, Mich.

Compared to her family’s home in Waterford, Mich., there was a noticeable increase in biological diversity on that tract of land. In hindsight, the effect of nutrient pollution on Lake Oakland near her home (from lawn fertilizer) was obvious when compared to the pristine waters of the bay.

“When we were Up North, my parents always made a point to show us the different species of birds and critters that we didn’t see back home,” said Kurzman. “This early experience gave me a sense of our natural world and our influence over it, as well as our obligation to protect and preserve it.”

Halfway through her college career, frustrated with what she perceived to be a gap between what we knew we should be doing and what we were doing, Kurzman decided to pursue a degree in environmental management. After earning her bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, she began working for a small consulting firm where she handled projects for, among other companies, General Motors.

“During my time in school, I felt that corporations played a critical role in protecting the environment due to their size and influence,” adds Kurzman. “So after a few years of consulting, I decided to see if I could insert myself into that world.”

Kurzman earned her doctorate in ecosystem ecology, also known as biogeochemistry. This is the field of ecology that looks at the movement of energy or nutrients between living and non-living compartments of the ecosystem. It gave her the opportunity to look at losses of nutrients from different ecosystems depending on land use and management methods.

“In industrial ecology, we focus on the movement of materials and energy, and on minimizing losses of waste and energy,” explains Kurzman. “In that regard, it’s not so different than studying ecology outside of a facility.”

(For those not familiar with industrial ecology, it is a young, but growing, multidisciplinary field of research which combines aspects of engineering, economics, sociology, toxicology and the natural sciences. It stems from the idea that natural systems should be used as an example of how to design sustainable industrial systems.)

All of the time she spent exploring the Old Mission Peninsula has proven fruitful for her time spent with GM. Viewing industrial processes from a lifecycle perspective comes naturally. She can see how what the company does in an industrial setting drives efficiency, and the shared value it brings to society through reductions in resource use.

“Achieving sustainability on a global scale means consuming resources at a rate that doesn’t deplete them on a human time scale,” said Kurzman. “Preserving natural lands and controlling our emissions so that we don’t exceed earth’s capacity is essential to maintaining healthy and diverse ecosystems.”

Kurzman is leading the charge to ensure that there are real benefits to the measures being taken by the company.

“My favorite part of the job is seeing improvement in our sustainability performance metrics and knowing that our efforts are making a difference,” she says. “The rapid integration of sustainability into our business model is driving awareness, action, and, most importantly, enthusiasm at all levels of the company. “

Like the majority of the sustainability team at GM, Kurzman doesn’t hang up her sustainability hat when she gets home. She follows a lot of the same practices that her team does at the office: invest in energy efficient appliances, turn off lights when not in use, and recycle and reuse.

However, with several years spent studying the impact of different agricultural practices, she takes it a step further when it comes to food.

“My work has made me increasingly aware of how easily our food choices can reduce our environmental footprint, so we try to buy locally grown food and eat more that’s lower on the food chain, like fruits, nuts and vegetables,” she adds. “This year we plan to have a garden, something we couldn’t do before we bought our house.”

At the end of the day, it all comes down to linking business objectives to sustainability objectives. This includes finding new and more comprehensive ways to link financial or business value to improvements in sustainability metrics, as well as creating the data systems the company will use to track sustainability performance. But that’s all in a day’s work for Amanda Kurzman.

“With more than 200,000 global employees, we have tremendous human capital to leverage in a positive way,” says Kurzman. “Now that sustainability is a normal part of the business, they have the ability to take their best practices learned inside the company, and take it outside of our walls.”

For a woman who spent her days as a little girl getting lost in the environment, the more people who are aware of their impact on this world, the better.

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