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  • Image by Mike Bailey

    This piece was originally published in the autumn issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 05: Unusual Activists.

    Sarah Murray, a regular contributor to the Financial Times and The Economist Group, has been writing about sustainability since the late 1990s when few reporters were covering environmental and social issues in the business press. She talks to Frances Buckingham on how coverage of the issues has changed, the role of media in calling out corporate malpractice and showcasing solutions, and the need for companies to tell the whole story.

    Frances Buckingham: How would you sum up your experience of covering sustainability issues for the Financial Times and The Economist Group?

    Sarah Murray: Over the past decade of writing for the Financial Times (FT), what started as a niche topic has become much more mainstream. Early on, the paper recognised that social and environmental challenges present risks and opportunities, and that business readers generally want to hear about solutions, not problems. The FT now has regular special reports covering sustainability topics. And while the paper has an environment correspondent, other industry reporters also cover the social and environmental issues that affect the companies that fall within their beat. In that sense, sustainability has moved out of a silo to appear in a range of sections of the newspaper. The number of white papers and research reports I write for the Economist Intelligence Unit has also increased. And while in these reports, I once covered corporate sustainability as a single issue, I’ve recently been writing on more focused topics such as energy efficient buildings or green cities. …

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  • SustainAbility Research Director Chris Guenther recently caught up with John Elkington, Co-Founder of SustainAbility and Founding Partner and executive chairman of Volans, about the launch of John’s recently published book, The Breakthrough Challenge. In addition to the book, they discuss the dilution of the sustainability agenda, the shifting role of the Global C-Suite, and the upcoming Breakthrough Decade.

    Chris Guenther: SustainAbility has closely tracked–and frequently discussed with you–your work on Breakthrough Capitalism, which you framed at the first Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in May 2012, and subsequently in the Breakthrough and Investing in Breakthrough reports. How have these ideas evolved to what is now represented in The Breakthrough Challenge, and what specifically drove you and Jochen Zeitz to write the book?

    John Elkington: I had no plans to write another book, Chris, having only recently published my eighteenth, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier. But then I got an invitation from Sir Richard Branson’s foundation, Virgin Unite, to attend a small roundtable outside Geneva. On the second day, Jochen Zeitz walked in and, I have to say, there was electricity between us around our thinking and ideas. I didn’t give it much more thought, but a couple of months later he got in touch and suggested writing a book together.

    When Jochen and I spent some days together, the book evolved further. The Virgin Unite meeting we originally attended proved to have been the gestational event for what became The B Team, a not-for-profit initiative founded and co-chaired by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen, and where I am on the Advisory Board. The idea is to bring together a global group of leaders to create a future where “the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.” …

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  • Flickr image by Tim Reckmann

    When Warby Parker launched its prescription eyewear brand four years ago, it broke the industry mold by offering a unique business proposition. Whereas most eyeglass shops depend on storefronts to bring in customers, Warby Parker created a business model based on bringing the glasses to the consumers. Using their “Home Try On” system, the company’s customers can order up to five pairs of glasses to try on in front of their bathroom mirrors – for five days at no charge.

    Much has been written about Warby Parker’s hipster brand identity as well as its social mission: for every pair of glasses sold, the company donates a pair to a person in need. What I find unique about its model, however, is the potential for sustainability by way of reduced resource usage. Just like Netflix and other virtual brands that have come before it, Warby Parker is cutting energy and resource use by streamlining operations.

    Once, the consumer marketplace was almost exclusively comprised of single-purpose brick and mortar stores – the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer and even the optometrist. Later, grocery stores – and, eventually, big box stores, retail outlets and shopping malls – put several of these services under one roof. It isn’t hard to see why the department store model was so profitable: erecting a store on every corner or in every town provides customers with convenience, builds brand recognition, and can even create a sense of community. …

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  • Flickr image by clairebear83613

    Which business model innovations have the most promise for sustainability? How are leading companies exploring them? What role can companies play in advancing more sustainable business models?

    These are a few of the questions posed by SustainAbility’s latest think tank work, Model Behavior: 20 Business Model Innovations for Sustainability. In March, we held roundtable events in London and New York with representatives from Barclays, Cisco, Estée Lauder, Ikea, L’Oréal, Mitsubishi and Vodafone, among other organisations. Below are a few of the ideas we discussed. (As we held the discussions under Chatham House Rule, quotes from the discussion included below are edited to provide anonymity.)

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  • Radar Issue 03

    The financial crisis has dominated headlines for several years. Now the talk has switched to recovery, which has led us to the question what type of recovery? There is an urgent need to reshape the global economic system—including financial markets—to better serve the needs of society, the environment and the wider economy. While we welcome signs of improved financial investment, rising incomes and profitability, we must also ensure that they are not at the expense of more sustainable development.

    In this third edition of Radar, we explore the issue of sustainable finance and ask what chance is there for change? In our lead article we outline the business case for banks to be the institutions that steer us into a new era of sustainable finance (Banking on Sustainability: Financing the Future). Rob Cameron interviews Leo Johnson about his new book and the signs he sees of a new form of capitalism emerging (The Unusual Suspects: Leo Johnson). …

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  • The idea of business model innovation—that a company could launch a new business model never conceived of before, or transform an existing business model—has long captivated business leaders. And yet, executives are often held back by vested interests in their current approach: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as global trends—environmental, social, political, technological—continue to shift the foundations of our current business models, incremental innovation will become less effective in enabling companies, industries and whole economies to adapt and succeed. There is an urgent need for fundamentally different approaches to value creation….

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  • Business Model Innovation: Postcards from the Edge

    24 Jan 2014 – Melanie Colburn

    Flickr image by emersonquinn

    What will business look like in 2025 or 2050? How will successful corporations adapt to the mega trends stemming from the sustainability challenge?

    These questions hint at a few of the implications of SustainAbility’s current think tank work. Earlier this month, we tested some ideas from our forthcoming paper on business model innovation, entitled Model Behavior, at a roundtable event in San Francisco. Attendees included representatives from B Lab, Gap, GlobeScan, Impact HUB Bay Area, Levi Strauss & Co, PG&E, Safeway, SAP, and Vodafone, among other organizations. (Quotes from the discussion included below are edited to provide anonymity, unless attribution was granted.)

    Tell Me How to Move This Mountain

    As one roundtable attendee attested, ‘The last time [my company] went through a business model transition it didn’t go so well—either for [the company] or [its stakeholders]—but we know business model innovation needs to happen.” …

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  • Following a number of 2013 supply chain crises, such as the horsemeat scandal (which saw Findus and others forced into recalls), there has been an emergence of technologies which trace a product’s journey from source to store. Image © London Permaculture

    This is post 6 of 10. See next or previous.

    For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

    “There is no point in wishing the complexity away—it’s already here…” My colleague Lorraine Smith wrote this while assessing the state of transparency in the corporate sector today, evoking a thread that ties far-flung supply chain crises erupting in 2013–from the apparel sector’s Rana Plaza factory collapse to the food and retail sector’s horse meat contamination scandal. Technology to trace product supply chains from source to store has emerged strongly in 2013 as a pathway to understand and address the complexity, while foreshadowing its potential future role as an enabler of collaboration within and across companies’ value chains….

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  • Typhoon Haiyan Near Hainan Island, China. Image © NASA Goddard Photo and Video: Flickr.

    “But let us again be clear that we are witnessing ever more frequent, extreme weather events, and the poor and vulnerable are already paying the price.”

    Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, closed COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland — which took place Nov. 11 to 22 — with these harrowing words. Figueres puts a fine point on a key element within UN climate negotiations that have direct implications for the private sector.

    We are witnessing the early stages of a new normal in terms of climate impacts, and an increasingly public discussion regarding how we best prepare, who pays for “climate resilience,” and how we address the needs of poor and vulnerable populations most in harm’s way. Addressing these challenges will require the private sector to drive innovation toward problems that are still emerging, to help people with little money to spend. …

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  • Recently I attended an event as part of the United Nations Global Compact Leaders (UNGC) Summit entitled “Impact Investment in the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” that focussed on the practical steps needed to bring impact investing to scale. Given the size and systematic nature of issues that the current Millennium Development Goals seek to address, both for-profit companies and mainstream investors will need to play a key role in creating solutions. Recent reports by JP Morgan and the Rockefeller Foundation as well as the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggest that impact investing may provide the right platform to do so, but that this will require both collaboration and innovation from a range of stakeholders….

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  • Image: iStockphoto

    Historically, most companies advanced their sustainability credentials through reporting, efficiency or even just good marketing. Approaches often involved streamlining processes or products to achieve a smaller environmental footprint.

    These innovations are worthwhile and move us closer to sustainable development, but they don’t address the underlying value structure of a company. They are incrementally better, but not transformative or good enough to change our take-make-waste economy….

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  • The promise of business-model innovation has long captivated the sustainability field, generating plenty of hype. But all the talk has yet to yield many real business-model changes.

    You might not know it to hear companies talk. Any business change can end up being classified as “business model innovation”. In a BCG and MIT survey of executives and managers earlier this year, nearly half of the respondents said their companies had changed their business models as a result of sustainability opportunities. However, the majority of innovations we see involve changes in companies’ processes and/or products, not underlying business models….

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  • While defending assets and markets against climate risks is the focus of most vulnerability assessments, few of us are inspired by an inherently defensive mission. Image courtesy of Digital_Third_Eye: Flickr

    Not that long ago, “adaptation” was a bad word among good environmentalists.

    That’s because it was seen as conceding defeat in the fight to put a price on carbon pollution, a distraction from the dramatic emissions reductions needed.

    But just a few years later, we’re seeing growing interest in “adaptation” — or its more pleasantly-named cousin, “resilience“ — from cities and corporations. Even so, few would argue that climate resilience is routinely prioritized at the necessary scale.

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  • B Labs are creating a new kind of corporation for a new economy

    July 17, 2013 was a historic day, one that B Lab’s co-founders call “a tipping point in the evolution of capitalism” and the “coming home” of capitalism to its proper role of creating shared and durable prosperity. It was on this day that Governor Jack Markell of Delaware – a state home to 1 million businesses, including 50% of all publicly-traded companies and 64% of the Fortune 500 – signed Senate Bill 47, legislation that enables the formation of public benefit corporations (PBCs) in Delaware. In brief, this legislation allows PBCs to be managed for the benefit not only of stockholders, but also for public interest and those affected by the corporation’s activities.

    I represented SustainAbility (a Certified B Corporation – see our profile) at a celebratory event at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York City, where I caught up with Bart Houlahan, a co-founder of B Lab.

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  • “The current economic system, built on the idea of perpetual growth, sits uneasily within an ecological system that is bound by biophysical limits.” So states the fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5), published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2012.

    Renowned economist Kenneth Boulding reflected the same sentiment more pointedly many years ago when he said: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

    Infinite growth is the operating principle, reinforced by our current economic and political systems, on which many of the world’s business leaders, policy-makers and investors make decisions every day. As a result, the gap between our current burn rate and what the planet’s environmental systems can support on a sustained basis continues to grow. This gap represents a significant risk – and an opportunity – for the business community.

    This is the context of the most recent collaboration between UNEP and SustainAbility, along with Green Light Group: a just-released report titled GEO-5 for Business. Using GEO-5 (a 500+ page compilation of environmental data, policy options and scenarios) as its foundation, GEO-5 for Business serves as a translation and primer written specifically for business leaders. While much analysis has been conducted on the impacts of business on the environment, this report looks in the other direction – at the impacts of environmental trends on business….

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  • Does Sustainability Need to Cheer Up?

    19 Jun 2013 – Ryan Whisnant

    Image credit: CC license by Jason Hargrove/Flickr

    Earth Day 2013 came and went in April with the usual fanfare of green festivals, volunteer programs, company campaigns and reflections on the question, “How are we doing, anyway?” On this last point, the answer this year seemed to be a somewhat lukewarm, “Well…we’ve been better.”
    Certainly, we see a steady stream of what might be considered discouraging news. A sampling from just last month included a pessimistic outlook in Jeremy Grantham’s Q1 letter to investors, updates on the factory collapse in Bangladesh, new data on honey bee colony collapse, spiraling loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and global food shortages. To be fair, just as surely there are hopeful stories and a lot of good work being done. But the point is that those of us working in the sustainability realm, or frankly anyone taking a systems view on global topics, must grapple with some daunting issues that easily could lead to a doom-and-gloom perspective.

    Is the solution to buck up, put on a happy face and simply forge ahead? The answer seems to be yes — and no. …

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  • Apps like Buycott are enabling consumers to uncover details of a product’s corporate family tree and join user-created campaigns to boycott businesses that support questionable practices.

    Between traditional news channels, blogs, and social media, it can be hard to keep up with what’s happening in the field of sustainable development. In this roundup the SustainAbility team aims to cut through the noise with a handful of highlights that have caught our eye….

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  • Companies like Whole Foods have developed successful business models to meet particular environmental and social needs but it is not necessarily as straight forward for mainstream brands.

    “Innovation is most powerful when it’s activated by collaboration between unlikely partners, coupled with investment dollars, marketing know-how and determination. Now is the time for big, bold solutions. Incremental change won’t get us where we need to go fast enough or at a scale that makes a difference.” — Mark Parker, CEO, NIKE, Inc. at the LAUNCH 2020 Summit

    I recently finished Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, and came away with new perspectives on, and examples of, strong private sector leadership on environmental and social issues. The authors’ examples from Whole Foods – generous employee benefits, transparency and equity of salaries, etc. – are impressive and might be enough to soothe customers displeased by Whole Foods’ CEO Mackey’s candid views on topics such as health care, climate change and unions.

    Like others before them (see my blog on Creating Shared Value), the authors attempt to differentiate their concept with others such as sustainability, citizenship and CSR. Yet Mackey and Sisodia essentially offer the same thesis: companies that consider and manage a broad array of stakeholder interests (beyond meeting the needs of shareholders alone) will perform better financially over the long run. This viewpoint is now more or less commonplace amongst large, global companies, a development we should celebrate….

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  • I was at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference last week. This annual event, where Fortune magazine “gathers the smartest people [they] know in sustainability,” is a cauldron of ideas and actions focused on finding “Sustainable Solutions,” this year’s conference theme. There is no shortage here of big ideas.

    Hannah Jones, Nike’s Vice President of Sustainable Business and Innovation, speaking on a panel titled “Pushing the Boundaries of Green,” summed up neatly …

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  • As SustainAbility’s web and digital media manager, I’ve been looking at how online tools and technologies can be used to support our work on The Regeneration Roadmap.

    The ambitions for the project are high, and engaging the right people in the right way will be key. Online platforms can play a significant role here: today there are fewer barriers than ever in mobilising people from all backgrounds and geographies to shape and get behind a campaign. From video blogging and social discussion forums to idea generation and crowd sourcing websites, the options available are seemingly endless. But where do you start?…

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