This Top 10 List Goes to 11: What Corporate Sustainability Leaders Are Talking About

10 Dec 2013Jeff Erikson

Will the vital pollination provided by bees, which is currently at risk due to Colony Collapse Disorder and other stresses, be the next big eco-system issue? Image © bob in swamp: Flickr

On December 3, I moderated WBCSD’s US Midwest meeting, a one-day conference held in Columbus, Ohio whose theme was to “scale up and accelerate the transition to a sustainable economy, in the US and beyond.” The meeting was packed with excellent speakers, panels and working sessions on a diverse set of topics, including: ecosystem services, reporting, communicating with investors, inclusive business, innovation and business leadership.

At the end of the day I was asked to wrap up the meeting with a “Top 10 List” of the issues that stood out most for me. I ended up with eleven key words and phrases. Much as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier that goes to 11 was “one louder” than most amps, my Top 10 List is “one longer” than most Top 10 lists.

  1. Responsibility. I didn’t expect this to be on my list, but it popped up several times during the day. Ohio State University President Joseph Alutto kicked off the conference by telling us that OSU has a responsibility to address sustainability in both its operations and its curriculum. One of our corporate speakers declared that it is time for the business community to step up and take responsibility for leading the transition to a sustainable economy. With most of the conversation these days focusing on the business case, it was significant to hear that responsibility remains an important motivator.
  2. Accounting. Another word that I didn’t expect. But various aspects of accounting were on display throughout the day. From the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board’s (SASB) ambition to change the rules of accounting to incorporate sustainability, to the movement to account for business impacts on ecosystem services, “doing the math” is critical.
  3. Financing. Solar power, entrepreneurs in developing countries, freshwater backpacks, and the $3 trillion building energy efficiency market are some of the examples cited that require innovative financing to make the investment economics work and get to scale.
  4. Pollination. In the context of eco-system services, several attendees thought that pollination (the ubiquitous and impossible-to-replicate service provided by bees currently at risk due to Colony Collapse Disorder and other stresses) may be the next big issue. And of course pollination was an apt metaphor for what happened in the room – the participants were both pollinating and being pollinated with ideas all day long.
  5. Government. The business people in the room spoke of the need for government regulations, incentives, investments and partnerships as essential to changing the economics, and consequently accelerating the adoption of more sustainable products and processes.
  6. Materiality. Materiality is the lens through which to view decisions about where to focus investments, management attention and reporting. SASB is developing standard lists of material issues by sector, GRI is requiring materiality assessments for sustainability reports, and internal auditing resources can be deployed to reduce sustainability risks that are material to the company.
  7. Increase the Pie/Cake/Wallet. While different speakers used different metaphors, they all seemed to agree that sustainability is not a zero sum game. Improving environmental outcomes does not mean sacrificing social or economic outcomes. And improving life for the poor does not mean a lesser quality of life for those more well off.
  8. Return on Investment. Okay, it’s not all about responsibility. CFOs still need to understand what the return is. ROI on sustainability includes both tangible, measurable benefits, and intangible, difficult to measure, but no less real benefits. Communicating effectively with CFOs and investors may be the key to scaling and accelerating sustainability.
  9. Collaboration. It seems this is THE buzzword of 2013, and with good reason. Many challenges we face are system-level challenges that an individual company cannot address on its own. From watershed management, to public policy change, to decarbonizing the economy, collaboration is key.
  10. Transformation. Incremental change will not get us to a sustainable economy. Transformation – changing fundamentally – is necessary, not just for the good of society, but also for businesses to succeed in the face of a daunting and exciting future. Transformation requires that businesses step up their innovation.
  11. Innovation. Innovation has been the mantra of both business leaders and sustainability advocates for as long as I can remember. And with good reason. As change in the world accelerates, so too does the need to think differently about our problems as well as our solutions to them.

As I step back and review my list, there is one word that is conspicuously absent: leadership. Perhaps because the conference was filled with those who think and act as leaders every day, the leadership imperative seemed to be a given, a requirement that didn’t need to be stated explicitly. Accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy will not be achieved by applying a simple list of ten (or eleven) words and phrases. Rather, it will require bold leadership by individuals and organizations across the globe, applied to the eleven facets reflected above.

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