By Tom Still

MADISON – “Sustainability” is a word that holds different meanings for different business leaders. Some see it as a mom-and-apple pie term used by environmentalists to describe any trend they like, regardless of cost. Others see sustainability as a business consideration that’s here to stay, even if the metrics defining it are evolving.

The inaugural Sustainability Rankings by Site Selection magazine is a sign the term has become more than a squishy-green buzzword. And Wisconsin’s ranking among the magazine’s top 10 states for sustainability may pay dividends to the state over time.

Site Selection will never compete for space on American coffee tables with Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens or TV Guide, but it’s read by thousands of CEOs, corporate real-estate executives and facility planners who decide where to locate or expand businesses. The magazine’s July edition ranked Wisconsin ninth among the states under a set of sustainability criteria, a performance that may catch the eyes of some savvy expansion planners.

Criteria tracked by the magazine included the number of private sector “green energy” projects, such as renewable energy manufacturing and supply chain facilities; the number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings; per capita renewable energy generation; green incentives for businesses; federal “brownfield” clean-up funding and more.

Wisconsin ranked no lower than 24th in any of the magazine’s eight categories and as high as seventh, which resulted in a No. 9 ranking among the 50 states. California, Washington and Oregon held down the top three spots; three other Upper Midwest states (Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois) joined Wisconsin in the top 10.

State government programs such as the recently enacted “Green to Gold” revolving loan fund can help Wisconsin manufacturers adopt sustainability initiatives and renewable technologies, sometimes at a significant upfront cost. So do other state incentives that speed brownfield development.

But the rankings also demonstrate how Wisconsin business and industry is charting its own course.

The Wisconsin Manufacturing and Extension Partnership is how some of those businesses are getting help. Largely focused on lean manufacturing practices, WMEP since 2008 has broadened its focus to emphasize “Next Generation Manufacturing,” a framework of forward-looking concepts used by companies to remain competitive in the global economy.

Improved sustainability through the use of renewable products and processes can give manufacturers a competitive advantage. In early 2010, WMEP announced it will develop and deliver new services to help manufacturers improve energy efficiency and reduce consumption, emissions and waste.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, includes a separate “sustainability” category in its Manufacturer of the Year awards and also works to connect businesses with resources that can help them save energy or develop a more sustainable supply chain.

Core Wisconsin industries, such as foundries that supply castings for hundreds of manufacturers, are working to reduce their energy costs and to stay ahead of regulatory changes that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Some of Wisconsin’s largest companies are increasingly driven by the chance to capture parts of the sustainability market. Johnson Controls, based in Glendale, has announced it will add 17,000 energy-related jobs in coming years to meet the demand to make buildings more efficient and to allow those buildings to generate their own renewable power. If the company’s estimates are correct, that’s a 30 percent boost in its worldwide workforce.

Finally, Wisconsin is building small clusters of industries around alternative energy, from wind to solar to advanced biofuels. An increasing number of entrepreneurial start-ups in Wisconsin fall into the “cleantech” sector, as demonstrated by finalists in the most recent Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

Of course, some analysts warn of a coming “green bubble.” The rush of investment dollars into cleantech in recent years is reminiscent of the information technology gold rush in the late 1990s, which ended with a market plunge when investors realized not every “.com” business would – or should – survive.

The same may be true for many new alternative energy companies, but it doesn’t change the fact that most Wisconsin businesses need to embrace sustainability – if for no other reason than to control energy costs and to avoid regulatory pitfalls.

As the Site Selection rankings show, Wisconsin is getting a few things right. And maybe that’s reason enough for corporate decision-makers elsewhere to consider expanding in a state where sustainability is increasingly a bottom line matter.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.