How can long-term sustainability centricity deliver short-term value? (Revisited)

The epitome of laziness, I know, but I can’t let the first month of 2012 go by without a single post. Besides, those nice folks at WordPress made a point of suggesting revisiting old posts that were still attracting decent traffic, so really I’m just following orders!

Looking back over the last couple of years, if I had to pick a single post to represent the way I think about sustainability, this would be the one. Apologies to those of you who’ve seen it before…

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A while back, my fellow CommScrummer, Mike Klein, and I locked horns over different perspectives on sustainability and opportunities for value creation (see here).

With reference to some of Umair Haque’s great posts on his HBR blog, I was attempting to make the case that extreme differentiation and competitive advantage, where sustainability is concerned, is only really achievable when it is adopted as a fundamental design value – fully integrated into strategy and culture as a key driver of innovation; a perspective on brand and business strategy that inextricably links long-term business success with serving a higher social purpose.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but Mike’s essential beef with that assertion came down to quick wins. How, so ran the challenge he laid down, can the rapid adoption of sustainability-centricity provide competitive advantage to specific companies in the short- as well as long-term?

A fair question, and one that I hope I can begin to answer with an example from the strategy I’ve been pulling together for my current client, who, as you can probably imagine, has been occupying itself with very much the same question.

Before doing so, though, it’s worth recapping on the basic tenets of my position – the closely interwoven principles of authenticity and materiality.

Actions taken in the name of sustainability are liable to be worthless – indeed can be positively harmful to a company’s brand and the bottom line – if the underlying principles aren’t demonstrably applied to day-to-day decision-making (i.e. sustainability ain’t about PR; it’s about culture!). Amply illustrated by the case of BP, as long as old-fashioned notions of CSR exist as a sort of self-contained box for all the nice stuff, it will always be possible for the noblest of promises and commitments to co-exist with fundamentally unsustainable behaviours – with potentially disastrous consequences for the company concerned.

The authenticity of your commitment stems from the materiality of your actions – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of charitable giving, cause-related marketing etc., that commitment should be self-evident in the very products and services you provide, and the manner in which you conduct your daily business. Or to use the more eloquent words of Jonathon Porritt:

In an ideal world, all actions taken by a company to enhance its own commercial success should simultaneously generate benefits for society, over and above those that come directly through the use of that company’s products and services.

So, what does that mean in practice? And how, coming back to Mike’s challenge, can that perspective create value in the short-term?

To take the specific example of my current client – a major mobile phone operator out here in the Middle East – it means unleashing the power of mobile communication technology to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and actively contribute to solving some of society’s most pressing problems.

One of the biggest out here is healthcare – from problems of access for people living in remote communities, to the extraordinary prevalence of chronic conditions like diabetes among the Arab population. One of the things I’ve been encouraging my client to do is to think much more strategically, and much more materially, about how they can help to tackle these issues – to consider, for example…

How mobile devices and applications might be used to offer easy access to health and fitness advice. How videoconferencing technology might enable consultations between people in remote communities and doctors in the big cities. How emergency services might use mobile applications to send medical information on, ahead of a patient’s arrival in hospital, to help medical teams prepare. How health centres might use mobile devices and applications to monitor and manage drug inventories, and dispense drugs more accurately. How the provision of mobile health monitoring equipment to track key health indicators like blood pressure, blood sugar and lung function, might help people to self-manage chronic conditions and improve their quality of life…

The list goes on and on – all examples of the many ways in which it is perfectly possible to create value for the business in the short-term by opening up opportunities to provide new products and services. More than that, to generate real value for society in one and the same act, and to supercharge your brand’s sense of meaning and purpose by directing your core capabilities towards delivering “betterness”.

Of course, the real mind-bender in all of this is that creating this kind of short-term value is actually dependent on a more long-term orientation – a different kind of mindset that views sustainability not as a leading measure of activity (at arm’s length from core business), but as a lagging measure of the cumulative, long-term impact of everything you do.

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