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Look to the future, make bold choices and don’t go it alone

Red paper plane leads group of white paper planes

Photo by ConstantinosZ.

This op-ed is adapted from "Leading Sustainably: The path to sustainable business and how the SDGs changed everything" by Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank.

Too often at conferences on business, society and the environment, the problems we are facing are introduced — again — discussed in depth, questions are raised about how big they are, what they mean and what’s causing them. And yet, we’ve often found at these events, there was very little practical direction for how to move past the crises facing business and society today, particularly from a company perspective.

Almost two years ago, we set out to find and catalogue the practical steps that companies today have to take to create the new sustainable business models they will need to survive in 2030. We were inspired by the launch of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the embrace we were seeing for the 2030 Global Agenda by companies in Japan, the EU and elsewhere. 

To start our research, we secured an invitation to the SDG Business Forum at the U.N.’s 2018 High Level Political Forum. And there, lo and behold, were companies not talking about the problems, they were explaining the solutions that they were applying, individually, together and with assistance from outside parties. They were talking about how they would move beyond the crises they were starting to experience today and anticipate for tomorrow. 

From there, we continued to connect with a broad range of companies of varying sizes and across multiple industries that were taking practical steps to improve business practices and become more sustainable. Here’s some of the main takeaways collected for our new book, "Leading Sustainably: The path to sustainable business and how the SDGs changed everything."

Our takeaways

Look to the future of your business — to achieve the best tomorrow, prepare today for the worst.

Make changes to your strategies based on the big picture, not on the small problems (unless they are warning you about dangers arising in the big picture).

The past created the world we live in today — its environmental crises and social unrest — but it also has been building the platform and the thinking needed to move past these crises. That is, the SDGs, the Paris Agreement and a business world more focused on becoming sustainable for the long run. 

The business case is already there — the whole business environment is pushing for more sustainable models, from consumers to investors, employees to competitors. Catch up, keep the pace, set the speed or get pushed out of the way. 

Make bold decisions. Engage the whole organization. Communicate your directives and the reasons. Build an 'A team.' Pursue a multi-stakeholder approach. Be flexible, make assessments and adjust.

And watch out, because a whole new generation of "mission-driven" companies have a head start already, having established themselves as fully aligned with society from the get-go. They are laser-focused on bringing fully sustainable innovations and business models to sectors that have struggled to do so on their own, and they are achieving remarkable societal and financial impact.

Don’t get confused by the alphabet soup of methodologies for measuring and managing impact — choose what looks best for you, try them out, see if they fit, adjust, retry, expand, until you figure out what works for your company. Get started today. 

Capital managers, and even retail investors, believe that sustainability is the way forward. And they are going to talk to you about it. And if you are aligned with them, they will provide you capital at a reasonable rate — if not, you will pay more or even be left empty-handed.

Be systematic. Understand the steps that you as a business have to proceed through to achieve a sustainable business model. Apply smart managerial and leadership strategies to move through these steps. Make bold decisions. Engage the whole organization. Communicate your directives and the reasons. Build an "A team." Pursue a multi-stakeholder approach. Be flexible, make assessments and adjust. Work with your customers. Consider outside acquisitions. And leverage the SDGs.

You can’t do this alone. Bring your industry along for success and to ensure a fair playing field. Reach out to your industry associations, but also look to new partners, whether from civil society, international organizations or cross industry. If a few key industries do this right — health and wellness, insurance, fashion, real estate and tourism — we’ll all be in a better, more sustainable, place.

Before we close, two points bear repeating: For success, leverage the SDGs — recognize their power to help and guide the organization and your teams; and be systematic in order to align your business planning and operations with sustainability principles. 

Plus, remember this final, key piece to getting it done: You must bridge the knowledge gap — provide your teams with as many opportunities as possible to learn what they need to know in order to make sustainability-driven business decisions.

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