Why constraining your sustainability strategy is a smart move

Is a commitment to sustainability a real strategic advantage? Or are companies voluntarily tying one hand behind their backs?

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the incentives, and disincentives, implied by an aggressive sustainability strategy. I participated in a great panel discussion focused on the link between innovation and sustainability, described here.

The panel was moderated by Phil Metz of Singing Dog and featured Mike Biddle from MBA Polymers, Mikhail David from Interface, Beto Lopez from IDEO and myself. We discussed some very interesting concepts, primarily dealing with how effectively innovation processes can deliver social and environmental wins, and conversely, how sustainability can be framed and employed as an opportunity innovation.

In one exchange, Beto described the sustainability director’s role as anticipating a future set of operating conditions for a company and making them relevant and actionable in the present tense. I love this description. It focuses on the importance of understanding a wide body of social, environmental, commercial, economic and other inputs, interpreting them into relevant terms for an organization and creating ways to integrate this information into the decision-making process -- be it product design, operational, strategic or otherwise.

The central question I arrived at was this: If a sustainability director’s job is to effectively understand and communicate a set of future constraints, be they in terms of resource pricing, material choices or operational context, why would any company voluntarily move to a more constrained and likely more costly mode of operations any earlier than required by legislation, scarcity, or other drivers?

Image of a tree in a maze provided by Koya979 via Shutterstock.

Next page: Five reasons why a constrained approach is an advantage