I'm hammering out this column while flying over the Northeast on September 11. It's the six-year anniversary of one of our country's greatest tragedies. I'm heading home from a symposium that focused heavily on sustainability. The airplane is shaking and dropping as a result of heavy turbulence. I'm keeping my brain and fingers busy in an attempt to downplay my jitters. Fiddling through my conference notes, I'm forcing my attention to sustainability. Occasionally creeping in are memories from a fall day in 2001.

"America is in a war with the whole world to increase productivity," said George Dettman, the president and chief executive officer of SKF USA, a self-labeled "knowledge engineering company." I had written down that quote from Dettman's speech one day earlier at the event in Philadelphia. He went on to say that productivity was deeply influenced by reliability and sustainability.

A man bolted into a meeting room at the indirect materials purchasing conference I was attending at a convention center in Nashville, Tenn. I was sitting near the front of the room, on the aisle in the third row. "Something terrible has happened in New York," he said. "A missile hit the World Trade Center. I think we might be at war."

Sustainability has become a major objective for firms involved in the manufacturing, process and utilities industries. I had perused several articles recently on companies that earned spots on Dow Jones' Sustainability World Index; but before the event in Philly, I admit I was a little cloudy on the topic. One of the speakers earlier in the day offered a superb definition. He said sustainability is "the creation of manufactured products using processes that are non-polluting, conserve energy and natural resources, are economically sound, and safe for employees, communities and consumers."

As the reality of what had occurred became clear, the questions came rapid fire. "Are we safe here?" "What should we do?" "What's the evacuation process?"

SKF gave its sustainability process a catchy title - BeyondZero. It aims to reduce the negative impact that results from its own manufacturing processes. It also seeks to raise the positive impact it can provide customers through the creation of more energy-efficient products and solutions.

Seeing the TV coverage from Ground Zero, I grabbed my cell phone and called my wife. Was she seeing what I was seeing? "I'm OK here," I told her. "I have to get home. I'll drive the 500 miles if I have to."

The big picture? A sustainability initiative can reduce your operating costs, increase productivity, improve profitability, minimize risk, and improve your relationship with customers and the community. Along the way, by utilizing energy-efficient products (motors, pumps, bearings, lighting, etc.), eliminating leaks in compressed air systems, and making smarter decisions related to lubricant use, you can raise your reliability.

Pictures from 9/11 in Nashville that I'll never forget? The look in attendees' eyes after a huge boom echoed throughout the convention center (a catering company had knocked over a stack of tables). Security personnel toting firearms in the lobby of my hotel. Manufacturing folks raising a pint glass in a local pub that night as Portland State University professor Lee Buddress offered a toast to the nation and to all of us.

Normalcy. Business as usual. I guess you could say it changes all of that. It, of course, refers to sustainability and to 9/11. These are turbulent times. We need innovative solutions, new ideas, a push for the greater good in order to address the challenges we face now and in the future.