When elephants learn to dance

I’ve long argued on this blog, and in my book, that business needs to change the way it thinks about sustainability.

Framed as simply “green”, sustainability tends to be viewed as an isolated issue and spawns end-of-the-pipe solutions that, whilst reducing the negative impacts of the prevailing business model, leave that model fundamentally unchallenged. In that world, acting sustainably is a cost – and one that neither addresses the full scope of the environmental challenge (merely slowing the rate decline), nor offers any meaningful prospects for radical differentiation.

Viewed in the context of “longevity”, however – the capacity to survive and prosper over generations – ethical business practices and environmental stewardship become part of a very different and much broader conversation. In this world, acting sustainably is about authenticity and fundamental long-term business viability – a vital lens through which to view innovation and shared value creation in a world of changing frame conditions.

I’ve been fascinated, this week, to read the considerable coverage surrounding the announcement of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, including articles from Jonathon Porritt and John Elkington on the newly-established Guardian Sustainable Business forum, not to mention all the reaction of various members of the Twitterati.

Whilst the proof of the pudding (as John rightly observes in another commentary on CSR Wire) will be in the eating, the language being used by Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, is at least demonstrating the correct framing of the issue. Some of the choicest soundbites include:

“Growth at any price is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business which ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world’s diminishing natural resources.”

“We are already finding that tackling sustainability challenges provides new opportunities… It creates preference for our brands, drives our innovation and, in many cases, generates cost savings.”

“This is not a project to celebrate, but a new business model to implement.”

In short, then, one of the great behemoths of consumer products is saying that business cannot choose between growth and sustainability. It has to do both, through the creation of new business models. (And, by the way, doing so will be bloody good for business!)

Throw names like Walmart and Proctor & Gamble into the mix (note: Unilever’s announcement follows hot on the heels of a similar one from Proctor & Gamble in September, emphasising the full incorporation of sustainability into its “Purpose-inspired Growth Strategy – improving the lives of more consumers, in more parts of the world, more completely”), and you have to think that something big is starting to happen.

When the elephants learn to dance, you know that sustainability is finally coming of age.

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