Why sustainability is a team sport

Editor's note: Read earlier reports from the GreenBiz Forum New York Day 1 from GreenBiz Senior Writers Marc Gunther here and Heather Clancy here.

One of the great virtues of market capitalism is that power is widely dispersed -- among consumers, corporate executives, investors and regulators. Lots of people get lots of votes that collectively shape business, and that’s good. But decentralization creates a daunting problem for anyone who cares about corporate sustainability: It’s terribly hard to get things done.

In conversations today at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, people who could be described as powerful---executives with big titles (vice chairman, vice president, CEO) at big institutions (NASDAQ, McDonald’s and Ingram Barge, America’s biggest barge company) -- all lamented the limits on their influence over what their companies do, let along how their industries change.

This is why sustainability has to be a team sport. Very few people -- or companies -- can do much on their own.

Take Bob Langert, vice president for corporate responsibility at McDonald's, who is one of the most respected sustainability executives in the U.S. He's got credibility inside Mickey D's and with NGO partners. But to get anything done, he's got to win over thousands of owner-operators of McDonald's stores, as well as a a diverse set of suppliers and, in some instances, the tens of millions of people who eat there every day.

“We are the world’s largest small business,” Langert said. The overwhelming majority of McDonald's outlets are “owned and operated by independent business people,” he said. “They have a lot of power in our system. That means we can’t dictate from on high. I challenge people to show me a company that’s more democratic than McDonald’s."

So Langert functions as a salesman for sustainability insider the McDonald's empire, an inside agitator, if you will. Last year his CEO gave him something valuable -- a full afternoon to make the case for sustainability to the company's top execs. He brought in executives from other companies, including Unilever and Coca-Cola, as well as business-friendly NGOs.

Next page: McDonald's execs choose No. 1 sustainability goal