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The 3 biggest takeaways from GreenBiz Forum 15

At what point does incrementalism and inaction become less appealing — and less cost-effective — for businesses than proactive, large-scale sustainability measures?

After three packed days of conversation about how to move the field of sustainable business forward at GreenBiz Forum 15, several central issues emerged as rallying points to affect change at a scale large enough to meet hugely daunting environmental risks.

Advice on related topics came from both top officers of large organizations, like General Motors, HP and the World Wildlife Federation, as well as young spoken-word-artists.

“This is a matter of survival, not for the fittest but for the fearless,” succinctly declared one poet with the Phoenix-based collective Convergent Arts during a performance on Thursday.

A rundown of the big picture ideas imparted at this year's GreenBiz Forum.

1. Incrementalism doesn't match mounting risk

Building the business case for sustainability is a familiar challenge for sustainability executives looking to better engage the C-suite, boards of directors, employees or consumers.

One recurring lens to convey the sense of urgency that comes with daunting climate threats and shifting markets for sustainability-related components of operations: risk.

Supply chains in particular expose companies to huge amounts of risk — regulatory, reputational or logistical — from water scarcity to deforestation to conflict minerals or forced labor.

In addition to responding to these threats, however, some businesses are already jockeying for position in fields that could offer cost savings or open new revenue streams. Clean energy in particular has been on a roll of late, from Apple's $848 billion solar investment announced last week to new renewables targets announced this week by Kaiser Permanente and Target.

2. Collaborate — even with competitors

When it comes to attaining scale and influencing far-away suppliers, collaborations and partnerships are emerging quickly as a viable option.

Even seemingly big fish in the business world might not always have as much pull as it might seem. Retail is one example of a business where leading companies have joined forces to lobby for sustainability improvements instead of relying solely on (often overlapping) surveys and one-off site visits.

Besides working with other businesses to increase leverage, NGOs and other groups are also aiming to pool business efforts in fields like renewable energy and supply chain upgrades.

3. Think bigger and broader

A drought isn't just a drought.

More and more, businesses are being pushed to connect the dots on environmental issues, social issues, business performance and the bigger macroeconomic picture.

While droughts and water scarcity may seem like geographically-isolated issues unless you're a water company, the repercussions for variables like the price of other supply chain commodities, proved one nexus for sustainability efforts with promising potential.

Better integrating women and girls into emerging industries and climate initiatives in areas where career opportunities are traditionally limited was one concept generating interest. And then there were local intiatives with potential to scale, like the Green Bronx Machine public school program that melds sustainability, urban farming and opportunities for economic advancement.

Looking for more information about GreenBiz Forum? The #GrnBz Twitter feed also helped capture individual reactions to the event, and stay tuned to for an archived recording of mainstage sessions from all three days:

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