How to become a leader in Sustainable Business

Posted:  June 14th, 2011 by:  The Environment Site comments:  0

What’s your view on sustainable business?  Are you a BlueSky-er (everything’s going swimmingly well), a SilverLining-er (making progress, but not there yet) or a DarkCloud-er (oh what rubbish, we’re still on course to be doomed .. dommed I tell you!)

I think I hang around the DarkCloud sentiment more than anywhere else.  It’s not that I don’t believe it’s possible to have a sustainable and commercial economy, its just that the pace of change is so horribly slow its difficult not to get despondent from time to time.

Which is why a recent report brought a smile to my frown and, dare I say, gave me a rare SilverLining moment.

The report came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloane School of Management and is entitled Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage.

It’s headline statistic is that over the past year the number of companies increasing their commitment to sustainability more than doubled and only 3% of companies now believe sustainability is a load of old tosh.

Like any good report (and this is a good one!) there then follows a whole bundle of other commentary and statistics which are well worth poring over.  However, the thrust of the report is that a clear pack of “embracers” has now broken away from the “cautious adopters” and they are reaping the benefits of their leadership position.

So what has made these people leaders, and how can others emulate them?  Here are some those answers from the report which brought me the biggest smile:

Grow sustainability from the bottom up

Businesses can talk about sustainability at executive level and impose all sorts of top-down initiatives .. however it’s only really going to happen if sustainability is grown from the bottom of an organisation upwards, with employees identifying and implementing ways in which the business moves to a sustainable footing.

Aside from nurturing a culture of imagination this also brings about a democratisation of a corporate workplace which, in far too many places, is run more like a military operation than a civilian one.  The social change of this approach could be very far reaching.

Measure everything

… and if there’s no way of measuring it, invent it.  A key aspect of sustainable business is reporting on what is material to a company’s operations.  Emissions, water and waste are common to all, but these should be considered the bare minimum.

This is one of the biggest black holes in business sustainability at present.  True leaders will already know what is vital to their business: it’s just a question of measuring and reporting it.  This is turn is wrapped in transparency and can only lead to a better understanding of companies by investors, clients and customers alike.

Value the intangibles

Just because something cannot be measured in financial terms doesn’t mean to say it shouldn’t be valued.  Biodiversity is one of the great examples of this, but there are many other cases in point ranging from the hoary old work life balance through to social cohesion.  Businesses should value these impacts now, while the means of measuring them financially are still being developed.

However, it may be possible to over analyse many of these things.  The case for a good work life balance should be greater than its financial bottom line, and I seriously doubt a meaningful financial statement on biodiversity will ever be possible.  That shouldn’t stop businesses valuing them .. they just have to make the leap that that “value” is not necessarily financial.

Be authentic and transparent

Set meaningful targets: ones which cause stretch but which are not infeasible.  And if there is a problem be straight about it, don’t wait for a solution before announcing the problem, and don’t try and brush anything under the carpet.

Transparency is another huge shift on corporate culture waiting to happen.  After decades of style-over-substance marketing this should reverse the process and allow all stakeholders to build a true view of the companies with which they’re engaged.

However, to retreat from the SilverLining a little, this last point in the report was headlined “Try to be authentic and transparent”.  Why try? As one of the world’s most recognisable green leaders would say “Do, or Do Not. There is no Try”.

And that’s how companies become sustainability leaders.

Picture Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/2062184804

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