Defining “sustainability” in general terms can be difficult, since definitions evolve over time with new ideas or trends. Sustainability today encompasses contexts of natural resources and the environment, economics and social equity, but generally speaking, to be sustainable is to use “methods, systems and materials that won’t deplete resources or harm natural cycles” (Rosenbaum, 1993) – and to “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (WECD, 1987). In “Advancing Sustainability: From 1.0 to 3.0” – a white paper from GE and Wharton – experts discuss why the business case for sustainability is compelling, even in this tough economic climate.
Increasingly, companies are moving away from PR focused reputation management and reparation-based initiatives to innovative, forward thinking practices that engage stakeholders. And, while their definitions of sustainability vary, executives agree on the reasons for undertaking such initiatives: to “create value for shareholders, customers and communities while recognizing constraints on natural resources.” That said, many executives also feel that significant barriers exist to impede progress (i.e. high upfront capital costs and long payback periods).
Yet, value creation doesn’t have to come at a high price. In fact, one of the easiest ways to find savings and increase employee engagement is to host Treasure Hunts – one to three day events that unite cross-functional teams of employees in an effort to identify energy savings throughout facilities. In her blog, EDF’s Beth Trask talks about using Treasure Hunts to empower employees to find savings by tapping the diversity of their experiences and ideas. These events are low-cost initiatives that can be replicated at companies of any size.
Embracing a proactive, future-focused sustainability effort requires a clear vision and employee engagement – driving change from the bottom with support from the top. Ideally, companies would approach sustainability programs by setting absolute goals – tougher but more important than intensity targets, according to Gwen Ruta, VP of EDF’s Corporate Partnerships Program. Absolute goals help maintain momentum and stimulate innovative thinking when the low hanging fruit has been picked, because to achieve an absolute goal, a company must “have the imagination to think about [its] business differently….” Thus, we should “build into the definition of sustainability that as one natural resource is depleted, another [is] identified or developed to replace it” (Robert Giegengack, emeritus professor, U Penn).
Looking ahead, large, multi-national companies possessing leverage should work on supply chain influences, while smaller companies ought to start with in-house programs and eye supply chains to be able to keep up with regulatory requirements. Further, consumers have the power to spur innovation, so companies would be wise to value customer feedback when evaluating their business models. And, like financial reporting, CSR reporting should be formalized so commitments are visible and companies are held accountable.
In summary, when moving beyond PR motivated sustainability efforts to future-focused practices, companies will begin to:
View compliance as an opportunity
Make value chains sustainable
Design sustainable products and services
Develop new business models that will change the competitive landscape, and
Create next-practice platforms by questioning the logic behind current business practices.