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The Inside View

The 10 worst sustainable business practices

What to avoid on the road to success.

I recently teamed up on a panel with Kim Stackhouse-Lawson (director, sustainability, JBS USA; and chair of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef) and Carlos Saviani (VP, markets and food, World Wildlife Fund) to assist in establishing a sustainability initiative in the food supply chain facilitated by the Context Network.

We were asked to feature the best and worst practices to avoid in establishing a sustainability program and strategy. Our presentation sparked an eye-opening dialogue with the audience, so in this column we teamed up to share our insights. We’ll start with the worst practices. The next column will feature the best.

1. Single-impact-driven decisions

Under pressure, some companies make decisions on just one aspect of sustainability. Animal welfare is an example. An important issue, for sure, but all factors should be considered beyond the welfare of animals, such as environmental, human health and economic considerations. Be sure you understand the tradeoffs for the longer term.

2. Lack of robust, transparent, measurable and time-bound commitments

Generalities don’t work any more. There is still a smattering of practicing the 7 Sins of Greenwashing.

3. Failure to assign a monetary value to sustainability

As AT Kearney has reported (PDF) regarding supply-chain management: If companies cannot quantify the value of a sustainable supply chain, they aren’t able to justify investments. Producers and suppliers are not incentivized for sustainable production. The development of the business case is key. Your company needs to know and believe in why you're developing a sustainability strategy and also believe in its positive business outcomes.

You can’t have both leadership and 100 percent risk avoidance. Smart risk is necessary.
4. Getting paralyzed by risk aversion

Senior management often talks about leadership, then moments later talks about avoiding risk. Add in the lawyers and naysayers, and you have status quo. You can’t have both leadership and 100 percent risk avoidance. Smart risk is necessary.

5. Letting others define your brand

It’s hard to believe that companies stand by playing defense when their brand is maligned. They hope to be caught doing good. Or they decide to "tell their story more," as if pushing more information out will connect with people. "Tellling" is the opposite of what is needed. Sharing is key. It’s two-way, listening, being open.

6. Seeing NGOs as the enemy

Dismissing your critics is a missed opportunity to learn and get better, or at least get to know the other side better at a human level. Finding and collaborating with the science and solutions-based NGOs is even a better route to go.

7. Picking winners and losers

Don’t worry about the failures and shortcomings and write them off. After all, it’s a journey. Mistakes lead to overcoming hurdles and motivates people to try. Most stakeholders want sincere effort and recognized the effort even when you fall short.

Focus on the outcomes, not the path to get there.
8. A one-size-fits-all approach

Focus on the outcomes, not the path to get there. For example, the use of innovative technologies should not be automatically accepted or rejected. Rather, the measure of success should be does it deliver a better, safer, healthier result. Plus, there is no cookie-cutter approach to achieving better sustainable progress. Take cattle, for example. Raising cattle is dramatically different in Colorado versus Argentina versus Australia. So, concocting specific global process requirement can be counterproductive.

9. Listening without a commitment to truly understand the perspective of others

Listening skills, especially for passionate sustainability advocates, can fall short. We are so into the solution as we see it, we don’t listen enough to our partners in supply chain or operations. We end up at odds with them versus serving their needs.

10. Satisfied to play defense

Some see sustainability as complicated, full of trade-offs and hard to understand and grasp by consumers and other stakeholders. So, they lay low. Stay out of trouble. Maybe get caught doing good. For those that don’t develop a positive and proactive sustainability strategy, good luck in tomorrow’s world and future bottom-line results. It is an expectation of today’s customers, consumers and your own team members.

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