Babson Center Speaker: John Cook 

Daphne Nwobike   
Staff Writer

In recent years, “sustainability” has been a buzzword in various sectors of society, including government, academia, and pop culture. Even more profound has been the adoption of this term by business corporations, especially those who have come under fire for their unsustainable practices. This increasing focus on sustainability is causing corporations and businesses to acknowledge their role in this conversation and aim to mitigate their environmental impact. One such corporation is Niagara Bottling, a family-owned water bottling company that employed John Cook as its director of sustainability. This week, the Babson Center hosted Cook to come and share his experience with keeping businesses sustainable.

Well-versed in the intricacies of sustainability, Cook has served in numerous positions that have allowed him to implement environmentally-conscious changes. Cook began his career in academia, where he taught subjects in the arts and humanities. Realizing his true passions lay in working in spaces where he could see his beliefs come to life, Cook decided to pursue a full-time career in sustainability. Cook worked with a consulting company to set up a recycling program. He then created a sustainability program at the University of California Riverside, where he managed farming on campus, renewable energy, transportation, student rights, and more. In this position, he realized that sustainability was “very much about social and environmental justice, as well as about creating new efficiencies and slowing climate change,” he says. From here, Cook transitioned to Niagara, where he is content with his work in keeping their plastic bottles environmentally friendly. 

However, a career in sustainability has many challenges, such as pushback and financial limitations, both of which Cook has experienced. “I’ve been trying to get us a bill for a recycling plant to go through. I have proposed that every year for four years, and we have spent serious amounts of money researching it, developing it. I quit asking, but now I’m probably going to ask again because a policy has been changed. [The change] came in time, but my timing is not their time, and that’s where you need patience. You can’t rush in too fast,” Cook says.

Sustainability requires tolerance and the tenacity to keep going even when beneficial ideas are rejected, or misconceptions emerge. Cook has heard every kind of misconception about sustainability, all boiling down to the belief that sustainability will prevent us from enjoying the comforts we’ve grown accustomed to, such as cars and computers. “It’s this idea that you’re going to have to give up something or go backward instead of seeing sustainability as a move forward, which is much more inclusive,” Cook says.

Despite the headway that environmentally conscious companies are making, there is no denying that the system upon which they are founded, i.e., capitalism, is often incompatible with sustainability, a flaw that Cook is aware of. “They coexist because they have to right now. But ultimately, I’m not sure they can coexist because capitalism is built on consumption and it is exclusive. Sustainability is not, so I have a hard time reconciling in the long run how [capitalism’s] constant need of consumption can be truly sustainable,” says Cook. 

Furthermore, the corporate world of sustainability isn’t very diverse, either. “There’s a huge lack of [diversity], part of it, I think, is due to the environmental movement. There’s been a lack of people of color being out in the environment where the interest in [sustainability] comes from. So I think expanding that would be great. The fact that we don’t have more indigenous groups, who were the first stewards of the land, doing this—that’s the biggest shock to me. That’s who we should be learning from,” Cook says. He believes we need to address what’s happening at the structural level to make the faces of sustainability more diverse.

For sustainability to thrive, it must be accessible. “What’s the point of having green cars if no one can afford them or renewable energy, but you don’t have access to it or clean water but only for some?” Cook asks. As a result, he is taking on the initiative of making Niagara as accessible as possible. “Our water is very inexpensive. We provide Jackson and Flint with [water], and now we’re sending bags so they can recycle the bottles after they’re done,” Cook adds. He is aware of the significance of water—and its scarcity: “There’s plenty of water, but very little is drinkable; that’s why I want to move [Niagara] to making water. I’ve always made clear that water is a human right.”

Cook’s advice for students interested in entering the field of sustainability is to “diversify” their knowledge of various aspects of sustainability and “[obtain] certifications,” such as LEED accreditation, while they’re still in college. He believes that sustainability “should be incorporated into everything we do.” Sustainability is a constantly growing and evolving field that will remain essential for the health of our planet. With pioneers like John Cook leading the way, either in a large-scale business setting or a small-scale home garden, we can eagerly anticipate all that the future of sustainability will offer.