The Leading Edge of Sustainability - New Spheres, New Mindsets, New Models

11 Jan 2011Patrin Watanatada

“Sustainability” has become part of the modern business lexicon. But what does it really mean?

In a 2010 survey of global CEOs by Accenture and the UN Global Compact, 93% of the 766 CEOs surveyed said that sustainability issues were “very important” or “important” to the future success of their businesses. In this same survey, 81% agreed or strongly agreed that “these issues are fully embedded into the strategy and operations of my company” (up from 50% in 2007).

We’re glad to see this evidence of the growing importance of sustainability issues on the global corporate agenda, and we celebrate the ambitious goals and substantial progress of many businesses. But we have to disagree that 80% of companies have fully embedded sustainability into their strategy and operations. The participants at our annual members’ workshop in London seemed to feel the same – in response to our informal pre-workshop survey, most said they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed”.

Such a disconnect between what the CEOs think and what many others think comes from a disagreement over what sustainability means. Sustainability isn’t just about a few percentage point reductions in carbon emissions, or a selection of sustainably sourced product lines, or a supplier policy – as important as all of those are as starting points. But what is it then?
We kicked off our recent Engaging Stakeholders Program member workshops in London and New York by asking each other: “What is sustainability leadership?” Here are some of the themes we discussed.

New Spheres

Manage outside the walls of the company. Leading businesses are expanding their spheres of interest and influence, seeing both responsibility and opportunity in the value chain as well as in the direct footprint. This is reflected in commitments that expand outwards (for example, in 2005 Walmart committed to sending zero waste to landfill; five years later it has committed to increasing the income of one million small & medium farmer suppliers), but also in a new view of what it means to manage a business. One of our workshop participants said that his company had begun to think of suppliers as part of the organization, and that this approach shaped everything they did on supply chain management.

Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals that go beyond the value chain. Examples we’d put into this category include GlaxoSmithKline’s efforts to increase access to medicines; Nike’s goal to develop a closed-loop business model; Google’s goals to make renewable energy cheaper than coal and (less widely known) to maintain the viability of one of its key input industries, journalism; and most recently Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to define a sustainable model for consumer goods value chains.

Look for the best ideas everywhere. The age of “Not Invented Here” is beginning to seem out-dated even in mainstream business. P&G now sources 50% of all new product ideas from outside the company. GSK, Nike and Walmart are all taking open innovation approaches to achieving their sustainability goals through GSK’s Open Lab for R&D into developing country diseases, GreenXchange for patents and Earthster for life-cycle assessment analyses, respectively.

Support individual leadership and innovation – particularly by the young. Many of the examples cited were of leadership from young people or employees, and DSM’s presentation on their young employees’ global bottom-up sustainability network was one of the most popular sessions at the workshop. It is becoming a constant refrain and source of hope that today’s young people are, as a group, much more interested in sustainability than their elders – and are full of ideas and energy.

New Mindsets

Think in terms of economic ecosystems. The least-understood and most overlooked dimension of the triple bottom line, economic impact, is perhaps the most important of all. As SustainAbility chairman Geoff Lye noted in his presentation, we are at a time when the economic power of business today has never been greater. The total annual sales of today’s top 200 corporations is $11 trillion – just under the GDP of the United States, over twice that of China, and five times that of the UK.

Businesses exist to create and distribute value, and the way they do this must be fundamental to any definition of sustainable business. Think of it as corporate economic responsibility, corporate social innovation, business-led economic transformation, or, as one of our members suggested, quite seriously, “Making Business Beautiful!” Whatever you want to call it, sustainable business is a way of doing business that sees each business as part of a larger economic system:

  • Where suppliers and employees are better able to supply and to work if they are treated and paid fairly;
  • Where shared resources and infrastructure are invested in through a good tax base (and businesses pay their fair share of that tax base);
  • Where customers have affordable access to products that will genuinely enrich their lives, including the basics (water, sanitation, nutrition, healthcare, energy, ICT and finance); and,
  • Where competition is healthy and businesses are diverse, making the whole system more resilient.

See values, norms and cultures as crucial enablers. Two participants at our London workshop named the end of the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on condom use and the work of Mechai Viravaidya to popularize the use of condoms in Thailand through humor as favorite examples of sustainability leadership. More generally, almost all agreed that understanding and influencing the expectations and values of everyone from consumers to investors would be crucial to the success of future sustainability initiatives. This is now mainstreaming as a topic of discussion – see, for example, the theme of the upcoming 2011 World Economic Forum, Shared Norms for the New Reality.

New Models

As SustainAbility co-founder John Elkington wrote last year in The Transparent Economy:

Properly understood, sustainability is not the same as corporate social responsibility (CSR)—nor can it be reduced to achieving an acceptable balance across economic, social and environmental bottom lines. Instead, it is about the fundamental, intergenerational task of winding down the dysfunctional economic and business models of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the evolution of new ones fit for a human population headed towards nine billion people, living on a small planet already in ecological overshoot.

Indeed, the search for these new business models is becoming increasingly vocal. At last year’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting, Ceres, Nike, the Skoll Foundation and CalPERS launched a working group on this subject.
Two key goals of these new models:

Collaborate to deliver solutions. Sustainability leadership has moved well beyond compliance (‘because it’s the law’), and even accountability* *(‘because we are pushed, we must’), towards solutions (‘because we can, we will’). Increasingly, leading businesses are looking at their core competencies and asking how these can solve pressing social and environmental challenges, often in collaboration with other industries. As former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has written, “For a century… the manager’s job was to oversee and control what was inside ‘my company.’ Everything else was a distraction. [Now] you need to collaborate… you can’t do it alone because the needs of individuals don’t conform to existing organizational and industry boundaries.” At our London workshop, Vodafone’s Sarah Sanders presented on their work to partner with pharmaceutical companies to make healthcare more accessible through Vodafone’s mobile platform.

Influence consumption – and defy waste. Our workshop participants agreed that addressing consumption was crucial, but admitted that this was also one of the greatest challenges for their business models. Product portfolio changes such as PepsiCo UK’s commitment to increase the percentage of whole foods and low-fat dairy in its global portfolio are important steps, but more is needed. One fascinating trend in this direction is collaborative consumption, web-enabled platforms that allow people to share the use of existing assets. One of our workshop participants named Streetbank, which allows neighbors to borrow household items from each other, as her favorite example of sustainability leadership.

What’s Next?

The leading edge is out there. As author William Gibson famously wrote, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Here are three leadership themes we’d like to see more of in 2011. We welcome your additions to this list.

  • Sustainability strategy as large-scale collaboration and change management. “Traditional” approaches to sustainability strategy have been heavily focused on the company’s own performance, planning and processes, with partnerships and organizational change as a second step. We now expect to see leaders increasingly placing collaboration and change management at the heart of their strategies. A key part of this will be formal and informal structures to encourage and harness insight and innovation among employees as well as stakeholders. Interestingly, a look at the business section of any bookstore will demonstrate how collaboration and behavior change, once on the sidelines, have now become part of the global business and economic conversation.1
  • Business initiatives to understand and affect values and behaviors. Many businesses have access to deep insight into human behavior through their market research capabilities and relationships with consumers. We want to see more of this directed towards positive change. The power of brands to change our values and aspirations has been a key theme at the Sustainable Brands conferences.
  • Efforts to systematically identify and scale new business models based on creating value from fewer physical resources, such as Daimler’s Car2Go pilot based on the Zipcar car-sharing model.

1 See Macrowikinomics; Collaboration; Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us; Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness; Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard; Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior; etc.

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