Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Ensia.
As the world grows smaller, the fates of people, governments, corporations and NGOs are becoming increasingly intertwined. We are citizens of one planet, and this interdependence places an increasing responsibility on each of us not only to take ownership for our actions, but also share in our stewardship for the earth. Long-term sustainability hinges on our mutual collaboration.
However, over time, we have developed many bad habits, from overconsumption and energy use to unsustainable wastewater and carbon emissions. We’ve gotten used to the idea of having and doing whatever we want, when we want. But as the world’s population expands by roughly one-third over the next 40 years — adding about 2.5 billion people by 2050 — we face a critical inflection point in our future.
Although the evolution to a sustainable world will require commitment and support from each of us, corporations operate at the intersections of society, which gives them unique leverage to drive positive change. In a world where profitability is no longer enough, society also expects companies to serve as active stewards of the planet and support the social fabric that has served them well and sustained their operations, and successful investors eventually will align with companies that meet those expectations.
Just as leaders can be easily identified by their actions, corporations can exhibit a series of recognizable “habits” that maximize both their individual talents and their ability to collaborate in support of the common good.
First, the most sustainable companies must demonstrate the habits of a leader.
1. Take the road less traveled
The road to success is not paved, and some of the most successful companies started with what was once considered a crazy idea. Companies must not be afraid to try new techniques and technologies to enhance the sustainability of their own operations as well as the world around them. We must absorb our failures to capture the full value of our successes, and we must have the courage and conviction to blaze new trails. Companies face many forks in the road every day, and often the less-followed choice can yield the most value for a company and its stakeholders.
The Virgin Group and its founder and chairman Richard Branson have taken the road — and air — less traveled. The group has committed to invest all profits from its transportation businesses into developing clean fuels, and to drive resource and energy efficiency and the development of low-carbon jet fuels through its not-for-profit organization, the Carbon War Room.
2. Chart the course and get there first
In order to successfully navigate the road less traveled, though, the world’s top companies must look ahead and envision what success looks like, then work backward to determine the path to getting there. Setting aggressive goals for employee alignment can make the endgame realistic and achievable, while publicly tracking progress will encourage the discipline required to achieve the desired results. When combined, these strategies have a proven track record of facilitating transformation.
Companies publishing sustainability reports following Global Reporting Initiative practices are leading the way in this regard. With its first set of environmental health and safety goals established in 2005, followed by its 2015 Sustainability Goals, the Dow Chemical Co., where I am the vice president of sustainability and global environment, health and safety, is one example of how companies are helping chart the course.
No matter how well it may lead, no one company can achieve long-term sustainability while operating in a silo. To maximize their impact, the world’s most sustainable corporations partner with each other and other key stakeholders, sharing knowledge, leveraging their respective strengths and fostering the next generation of talent.
3. Be an open book
The most successful, sustainable companies do not keep their wins close to the chest, but rather share them — and their challenges — to the benefit of all. By sharing information about what works and what doesn’t, companies can learn from each other and avoid repeating mistakes. This habit of open knowledge-sharing streamlines the learning process, so that we can all make progress together more rapidly and efficiently.
One outstanding example is the Corporate Eco Forum, an invitation-only membership organization for large companies that incorporate environmental thinking into business strategy. Composed of companies with combined revenues of more than $3 trillion, this forum of VP and C-level executives is helping drive environmental sustainability best practices across the 18 industries in which its members participate.
4. Be the missing link in the chain
True leaders recognize both their strengths and weaknesses. By acknowledging these early on and partnering with other organizations that complement them, companies with this habit can make progress more quickly and efficiently than trying to go it alone. Historic collaborations like that between Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund, or the numerous companies that have joined The Sustainability Consortium, are examples where leaders have come together to catalyze change.
5. Pick the right people
The world’s top companies also recognize they do not have all the solutions. While they work toward their goals today, they also have built a habit of recruiting top talent and developing their people to anticipate tomorrow’s challenges — fostering teamwork built on the strengths of each individual and always forming the workforce of the future. Companies such as IBM and Accenture have done a great job incorporating sustainability into future leader training by encouraging engagement in their volunteer programs. Keeping an eye on the challenges of tomorrow also allows corporations to plan today which steps they can take to achieve long-term sustainability.
Of course, the most sustainable companies will lead and collaborate, while also maintaining profits to keep their efforts alive.
6. Make the value obvious
All three components of the triple bottom line — people, planet and profit — must be clear and consistently present for companies to sustain their pursuits over the long haul. Essentially, corporations must do well in order to continue doing good, and organizations such as the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board are charting the course for companies to disclose material sustainability issues in their public filings — resulting in improved sustainability performance among thousands of corporations.
As Herbert H. Dow said, “If you can’t do it better, why do it?” Answering this question is critical. Finding the sweet spot of maximum positive impact — for people, planet and profit — underpins the habits of the world’s great companies.
With so much riding on their actions, the corporate bar has been raised, and profitability cannot be the only metric for great companies. The most sustainable — and successful — enterprises of today and tomorrow will be outstanding corporate citizens who thoughtfully invest in the mutual success of their environment, the communities they serve and the customers who experience the value of their business efforts.
Map image by Kisialiou Yury via Shutterstock