Tag Archives: sustainable development

If not now, when?

I received this passionate and utterly brilliant message from Giles Gibbons, Founder & CEO of Good Business, earlier this week. Naturally, I agree with every word, and it’s just too good not to share in full:

Dear friends,

20 years and counting of the ‘sustainability movement’ – of which we count ourselves a part – and what have we achieved? Our honest answer right now is nowhere near enough.

If anything drives it home it’s the summer we’ve just had. We don’t think you can have lived through it without having a ‘stop and think’ moment. 46-degree heat in Paris. The hottest July the continent of Africa has ever seen. Populism breaking politics in Britain, and exploding onto the scene in France, Italy, Ukraine – and the list goes on…

Too many people feel that the world is stacked in favour of elites at the expense of everyone else. And so the two main challenges of our day – climate change and inequality – played out on the global stage in a clear, present and in-your-face way. Even the FT and corporate USA have started to argue that capitalism as currently construed isn’t working. And that’s before millions of people around the globe joined the biggest climate protest ever.

This must be the time not just to sit up and think, but to take action. Businesses have been delivering slow and incremental change in the name of business responsibility and sustainability when what we need is a thunderbolt of transformation.

We can’t keep saying we’ve got twenty years to save the world because the time will run out. From zero-carbon commitments to the SDG deadline, horizons for delivery are drawing ever closer, not so the action they demand. In fact we think that unless business steps up to the challenges we face, time will be called on the sustainability movement. It’s not delivering the capitalism the world both wants and needs.

But it absolutely can. And there’s never been a more compelling case for it to do so. Not least because there is a massive new wave of will for change. For the first time ever consumers and culture are in the lead on all this, demanding action. People want to buy from, work for, talk about and partner with organisations that deliver bold solutions for people and society. And for every established business that doesn’t deliver against this there’s a disrupter that will.

The message is clear. If you want your business to be part of the future you need a step change in thinking and action. Steady progress on sustainability will write you out of history. The winners will be those that embrace transformative change.

And if there’s ever a moment to mark a new beginning it’s upon us – January 2020. A decade to meet the 2030 agenda for sustainable change. The moment to draw a line in the sustainability sand, and springboard into a new era of action.

We know this is anything but easy. But it is essential. And we believe that everything we’ve learnt and done over the past 20+ years of working in this space has set us up for this moment.

If you agree, join with us. If you want us to help, please get in touch. We’re ready.

Transform your business, transform the world.

Giles

Founder & CEO
Good Business

Loving Renault’s new sustainability ad

Yesterday, I caught my first sight of Renault’s new TV ad trumpeting its action on sustainability and, I have to say, I was hugely impressed. Amidst all the other ads of the ilk of the “new, more fuel efficient Audis” and BMW’s “efficient dynamics” it really stood out, and here’s why…

Asking the really big question
It’s an oft-quoted line on innovation – Henry Ford’s observation that if he’d asked his customers what they’d wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses. If Renault’s ad and their new Sustainable Mobility website are anything to go by, they’re looking way beyond simply producing less polluting, more fuel efficient cars. They’re actually asking themselves whether the car, as we know it, has a future as a sustainable means of transportation and what might replace it.

Systems thinking
The messaging is also spot on when it challenges the exclusive focus of many manufacturers (and indeed many customers) on vehicle emissions. It points to the need to evaluate and address environmental impacts right along the value chain and at every stage of the product life-cycle – from design and manufacture right through to end-of-life recycling.

Balancing short- and long-term objectives
The ad closes with a sight of Renault’s new mass market electric cars, available from 2011 – all-electric vehicles with zero CO2 or pollutant emissions. Take a look at the Building the Future segment of their website, and you see that this is not the be-all end-all of their strategy; rather it’s just their response to the requirements of the immediate future, balanced by longer-term objectives including the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Renault may not be alone in all of this (indeed I posted over a year ago on Top Gear’s feature on the Honda Clarity), but it’s the first auto manufacturer I’ve seen that’s really nailed what it means to be sustainable in an ad campaign. In so doing, they may well have leapfrogged to the head of the pack in terms of public perception.

How do you eat an elephant?

WARNING: ANOTHER LONG POST!

Anthony Kasozi made a great comment on my previous post, encouraging me to reflect further on a couple of significant points from Ray Anderson’s speech last week at Ashridge.

First was Ray’s candid admission that Interface didn’t get everything right along the way, and that the ascent to the top of “Mount Sustainability” is a constantly evolving process of learning and discovery – one that has taken well over a decade just to get half way.

Second was his acknowledgement that companies today are subjected to much greater scrutiny than Interface ever was in the 1990s. As such, there is far more pressure on them to demonstrate meaningful progress – quickly.

Anthony rightly infers that, in presenting Interface as a benchmark for sustainable business practice, consultants and commentators must be careful not to lose sight of the multiple steps, and the immense time and effort, it’s taken for Interface to achieve its pre-eminent position.

On reflection, perhaps the really critical point is that companies embarking on their own journey mustn’t lose sight of this either.

Under pressure to adopt a clear stance on ethical, social and environmental issues, the big temptation is for companies to go for the quick fix – fast-forwarding to the launch of headline-grabbing initiatives and proudly setting out wildly ambitious targets, without reference to a clear, considered, long-term strategy or how these things are to be achieved in practice.

That way accusations of greenwashing lie, and rightly so.

The title of this post asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is, “One mouthful at a time!”

My point? It’s unrealistic in the extreme for companies to think that they can tackle the “elephant” of sustainability in a single sitting. Such things will take time, just as they did at Interface, and so the real issue for organisations is to understand how they can engage in valuable and meaningful conversations with stakeholders along the way.

There are numerous staging posts at which companies can demonstrate meaningful progress and generate goodwill, without needing to resort to short-term fixes.

Imagine this as the first few steps in the process of building a more sustainable business…

  1. Audit – a company starts by conducting an audit of its impacts on society and the environment; even better, it involves customers and suppliers to evaluate the possible long-term effects of inputs and outputs along the value chain.
  2. Focus – based on the results of this audit, the company identifies those areas it considers to be of greatest importance to stakeholders, and where it stands to make the greatest impact (better to do a few things very well than lots of things poorly); even better, it engages with friends and critics to identify and agree the most pressing priorities.
  3. Planning – based on those strategic priorities, the company sets objectives and formulates plans to achieve them; even better, it involves the people responsible for their implementation in a process of co-development.

Ultimately, this is bog-standard best practice in stakeholder engagement – not just presenting people with a fait accompli, but actively involving them in a journey of discovery and, in the process, helping to build belief in and an emotional commitment to the actions that follow.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have all these opportunities to build goodwill and a sense of progress, without stampeding into actions that may have very little impact and end up damaging the brand.

I couldn’t agree more with Anthony when he suggests that we should suspend judgment on past performance, and instead give credit where it’s due for legitimate steps forward. However, this raises a whole other debate on what constitutes a “legitimate” step.

Granted, it’s a subjective judgment. For me, though, legitimacy absolutely has to do with stakeholders being able to see transparently how a step forms part of a clear, consistent and compelling strategy, and how it shows progress towards a goal they recognise as important and relevant.

It’s back to those three magic words of awareness, responsiveness and materiality again – something which requires organisations to engage much more openly and collaboratively than many are used to doing.

A fundamental question of leadership

WARNING: LONG POST

When Ray Anderson speaks, you listen. It’s simple as that.

When he addressed the Business of Sustainability event at Ashridge on Tuesday, it didn’t matter one bit that I already knew much of the Interface story (something I first became aware of back in 2004, when interview footage with Ray was featured in Joel Bakan’s The Corporation).

To see and hear him first-hand is to fully appreciate his commitment to the cause of sustainable business and – through the success of Interface – to become “the undeniable example” that corporations can do well (extremely well, as it happens) by doing good.

Despite his obvious passion and the stark nature of his core message – that our long-term survival and prosperity requires nothing less than the complete transformation of the current industrial paradigm of “take, make, waste” – he doesn’t come over in the least bit evangelistic. 

He exudes a sort of calm authority, with a rather homely and self-effacing style that gives him more the air of benevolent American uncle than idealistic crusader. Indeed, lest anyone should doubt that this is strictly about business, he begins by introducing himself as:

“an industrialist… as profit-minded and competitive as the next man.”

It’s a seductive and engaging mix, and you begin to understand why sustainability is now in the blood at Interface. But it wasn’t always so…

In fact, in 1994, when Ray first announced what has since become known as Mission Zero – action on seven fronts to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 – everyone around him thought he was nuts. (Not surprising really, when you’re in the business of turning petrochemicals into textiles.)

However, since then, Interface has saved over $372million through the elimination of waste – uniquely and deliberately broad in its definition as, “any cost incurred that doesn’t deliver value to the customer.” (Note the word elimination, not reduction – there is no such thing as “acceptable” waste at Interface.)

It has achieved a net absolute reduction of 82% in greenhouse gas emissions, reduced total energy consumption by 45% and water usage by 70%, to name but a few of the impressive statistics.

Over the same period, Ray tells us, sales have increased by two-thirds and profits have doubled – the combination of a well-spring of new product and process innovations, the galvanising effect of Mission Zero on Interface‘s people, and the generation of a level of goodwill that no amount of advertising could ever buy.

The facts speak for themselves: Ray wasn’t round the bend; he was simply ahead of the curve.

In our discussions as a table group, and during the breaks, we find ourselves continually returning the theme of visionary leadership as the dominant thread of the Interface story:

  • the willingness to challenge the prevailing mindset;
  • the ambition to transform a company, even when immediate practical steps to achieve the vision are unclear;
  • the courage to stay the course, recognising that engaging others in such radical change takes consistent and persistent effort over the long-term;
  • the humility to admit that – even now – the journey is only half complete, and the conviction to keep on going; and
  • the selflessness to look beyond one’s own organisation and seek to share one’s wisdom and experience with others.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who instinctively eulogises the role of leader as visionary and charismatic hero. Far from it, I’m a firm believer in situational leadership – i.e. the style and characteristics of an effective leader depend on circumstance and the people around you.

When you think about it, though, visionary leadership is exactly what was required to achieve the kind of radical change Ray envisaged for Interface; and, arguably, it’s exactly what is now required across business at large, where sustainability is concerned.

Ultimately, sustainability is not a discrete role or initiative or target, it’s a cultural thing – a fundamental belief and way of thinking that encourages us to consider the long-term implications of our actions, over generations.

Such cultural shifts take time to permeate throughout organisations and society. If we agree that sustainability is a must, then we could certainly do with a lot more leaders like Ray Anderson – at every level of business and public life.

Looking for inspiration? Come and meet Ray Anderson

When it comes to creating awareness and understanding of the business value of pursuing sustainable development, there can be few greater ambassadors than Ray Anderson – founder and chairman of Interface Inc.

The story of Interface’s transformation, and Ray’s subsequent efforts to engage other businesses in the pursuit of sustainability, provides a living and breathing example of what I mean when I talk about operating at Level 5 on the CR Continuum.

It’s also a perfect example of what I’ve come to refer to as “CR 2.0” – essentially the shift in outlook from CR as a means to protect and enhance corporate reputation to CR as a critical driver of innovation and value creation.

All of which brings me neatly to what stands to be a really inspirational event on June 17th, hosted by Ashridge Business School, where Ray will share his insights on “The Business of Sustainability”.

Together with other members of Interface and Ashridge Consulting, Ray will offer senior business leaders a unique opportunity to explore the possibilities (and implications) presented by transforming business practice in accordance with CR principles.

For more information, and to book your place, email kate.campbell@ashridge.org.uk