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North Hills Monthly

Economy, Equity, Environment at Heart of Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Approach

Mar 30, 2020 12:22PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Sustainable Pittsburgh is a nonprofit helping organizations of all kinds support healthy residents, build thriving communities and employ environmentally responsible practices. We spoke with Joylette Portlock, Ph.D., the organization’s executive director, about Sustainable Pittsburgh and its programs and impact on sustainability across the region.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of Sustainable Pittsburgh?

Joylette Portlock (Portlock): Our mission is helping the region build itself in fundamentally sustainable ways. It is recognizing that for a community, a region, an organization to last, you need to focus on the people, on the economic opportunity, and on environmental stewardship. Our core values are credibility, collaboration, resourcefulness, open-mindedness and making a difference through impact.

NHM: Tell us a bit about the history of the organization.

Portlock: Sustainable Pittsburgh was founded in 1998 as part of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, an outcome of a visit from the President’s Council on Sustainable Development for the region. It was officially incorporated as a nonprofit in 2006. The reason for wanting to have an organization like this was the desire to figure out effective ways to introduce sustainability concepts to the region.

NHM: What is the definition of “sustainable” or “sustainability”?

Portlock: Going back to the root of the word, “to sustain,” it’s really about how you build something to last. To understand that, you have to recognize that sustainability fits at the intersection of economic prosperity and environmental stewardship and social equity. We want to see a region where everyone has the opportunity to thrive within a clean and healthy environment.

NHM: Tell us about the sustainability movement in general, including here in Pittsburgh.

Portlock: People are increasingly interested in sustainability for a number of reasons. Obviously, it is becoming more of a topic in the public’s mind across the country, but here specifically, there is momentum. You see people growing in their understanding that if you want a thriving region for the long term, you need to be looking at multiple factors and how that applies to community development and economic development, which depend on sustainability. For businesses, there is investor, employee and consumer pressure to do things in more sustainable ways.

We have countless partners also working in this space with us. There are other organizations with whom we collaborate—other nonprofits, businesses, and local governments as well—who recognize that to get to the outcomes we want, it really does take that collaboration across sectors.

NHM: Can you elaborate a bit on some of your programs and services?

Portlock: We have a significant number of sustainability performance programs; a large section of our work is in engaging organizations in different sectors with a set of criteria to help them advance their sustainability practices. We’re a resource to help them educate folks about what being sustainable is and equipping them to make a change. We are a convener of organizations, bringing folks together to work collaboratively to solve problems, so we host a number of different networks to do that.

On the performance program side, we’re involved with the Sustainable Pennsylvania Community Certification, for which we partner with the Pennsylvania Municipal League. We manage the Sustainable Pittsburgh Shops Program for small retail businesses and the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant Program as well. The networks we host are for local government leaders and business executives.

NHM: What is the Sustainability Pittsburgh Challenge and its objectives?

Portlock: In 2018-2019, we concluded the fifth Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge. We’re in the process of evaluating the program and revising it for the next iteration; it’s not an active challenge right now.

The objective was for a workplace to earn as many points as possible across a wide range of focus areas: diversity, equity & inclusion; employee engagement; water; energy; transportation; air quality; and materials management. There were a number of things for which workplaces could achieve points, ranging from “just getting started” actions to really more involved things. It captured the activity of everyone, no matter where they were on their sustainability journey.

NHM: Numerically, the impact of the program resulted in the reduction of water consumption by over 178,000,000 gallons, reduced transportation emissions by 10,026 pounds of CO2, and reduced waste by 485 tons. How else would you say the challenge made an impact?

Portlock: A significant impact not measured in the numbers is the engagement and the education of folks engaging with us, learning more about what sustainability really means and getting excited about doing things to really improve the community.

NHM: Since the Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge is not currently active, do you think participants will continue efforts from past years?

Portlock: One of the wonderful things about the work we do is that people do learn from each other and get really engaged and excited around what is possible. I think there are a number of organizations for whom sustainability is core to their mission. We’ve watched, time and again, leaders from different organizations learning from one another, sharing, and figuring out how to do things they might not even have thought were possible. We’ve worked with close to 1,000 different organizations across the region and state, and it’s amazing to see the momentum and the interest that has been built over that time.

NHM: What are some events that you hold on a regular basis?

Portlock: We serve as a convener and as a resource to organizations including government, businesses and policymakers. In April specifically, we are going to be partnering through the CEOs for Sustainability, (an executive council that Sustainable Pittsburgh hosts), the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the organizers of Pittsburgh Earth Day to host a business breakfast on April 24 that is going to be part of a larger celebration happening around the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year. We do have an events calendar available on our website, and we have events throughout the year geared toward different constituencies.

NHM: Overall, how will a more sustainable Pittsburgh benefit the region as a whole, and are we on the right track?

Portlock: I think that there has been a lot of movement. Again, going back to the basic definition, if you want to thrive for the long term, that is an obvious benefit to everyone living in the region. And our footprint is broader than just the City of Pittsburgh: we operate in a 10-county region.

Rather than trying to make tradeoffs, it’s really important that we continue to keep encouraging movement toward a society that really does look at the intersection of environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic prosperity because all three of those things are very important.

While there’s a lot of good work happening here in multiple sectors, we need to make sure that the efforts are not just additive but that they become multiplicative and leverage each other’s work and use collaboration to make advancements as much as possible. That is in part because we do have some urgent sustainability challenges—if you look at climate change, at equity, at air pollution—we have a lot of reasons why we need to have the tools and potential to do these things.

To learn more about Sustainable Pittsburgh, visit You can even take a free test to see if your organization is meeting sustainability goals.