How much pollution is generated? How many acres have been deforested? How much carbon is in the atmosphere? Answers to these questions are often discouraging.
Can we draw any encouragement, then, from the questions business leaders ask themselves about sustainability? The questions themselves are arguably leading indicators of progress, suggesting hard-won understanding of how to frame seemingly intractable problems. So how do we know what makes for a better question?
Keep the philosophy of John Ehrenfeld, executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology, in mind: "Less bad" is not "more good." Incremental changes to day-to-day business will not steer us away from the ecological cliff we are approaching. Being "more good" requires us to ask different questions — not about how to do less damage, but rather about how to create greater benefits.
Each year, the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) convenes its Leadership Council to collectively identify the leading sustainability challenges facing businesses. Comprised of large companies seen as sustainability leaders in their sectors in Canada, the council comprises Suncor Energy, Teck, Tim Hortons, TD Bank, 3M, Target, The Home Depot Canada and about 10 others. Over the years, it has become clear that the questions these companies are asking are becoming more complex. The questions demonstrate that council members are embracing their responsibility to lead change in a complex global system. These companies have accepted the challenge of doing more good — not just less bad. But are they asking the right questions?
Here are key challenges identified by NBS's Leadership Council at its fall meeting in 2013. The NBS report "Simplifying Complexity: The 8 Sustainability Challenges for Canadian Businesses in 2014" (PDF) provides more information on what's ahead for Canada.
Future-Thinking: How can businesses act for tomorrow today?
Initial solutions point to policies that re-balance external forces, such as quarterly earnings expectations, and that exalt short-term results over long-term outcomes. NBS has commissioned an exhaustive review of leading academic research on how firms can best consider long-term impacts of today's decisions. Findings will be reported this fall.
Resilience: How can companies design resilient sustainability programs that can survive changes in leadership, economic downturns, political shifts and other setbacks?
Sustainability initiatives tackle complex problems: They must balance not only market demands and investor expectations, but also ambiguous and dynamic social and environmental problems. Some fail outright. Some fall victim to leadership changes. Many depend on political or market futures that do not pan out. So what makes a company's sustainability initiatives sustainable?
Corporate sustainability leaders embrace their responsibility and opportunity to engage community stakeholders. Yet rules are largely unwritten. The goals, strategies and capacities of community stakeholders vary wildly. A complementary question important for Canadian businesses addresses aboriginal views: What are the best ways for businesses to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives on sustainability, and to include Aboriginal communities in discussions of projects that affect their interests?
Innovation: How can firms create a pragmatic connection between sustainability and innovation?
Sustainability is commonly framed as a problem of technological innovation. Yet the increased efficiency of solar PV and lower costs of battery storage or electric vehicles are not the full solution. Pragmatic innovation explores how that process can be driven by market needs rather than technological possibility.
Metrics and measures: What are the appropriate metrics for sustainable development in a natural-resource, export-based and growing economy such as Canada's?
How can the low-hanging fruit of relatively cheap environmental gains get measured and prioritized in a "brown economy" reliant on petrochemicals such as coal, petroleum and natural gas?
Value chains: How can firms improve overall performance by embedding sustainability throughout their value chains?
NBS has studied the processes by which firms can embed sustainability in their value chains to assure compliance and reduce risks. But how can a firm's supply chain efforts move beyond the compliance and risk mindset? How can supply chain sustainability create strategic advantages such as access to markets, new products and services, and stronger customer relationships?
Consumer Apathy: How can companies combat consumer apathy to build active support for sustainability initiatives?
Companies are responding to consumers' expressed preferences for responsible products, but struggle to drive consumer follow-through at point of purchase. Companies recognize that cutting-edge tech solutions won't cut it; they need to satisfy all concerns about price, quality and style.
Business leaders and NBS researchers are discussing these issues on social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Participate in framing the top challenges to engage leading academics to produce targeted research.