Why the time is right to chart a new sustainability course

ShutterstockGalushko Sergey

If your sustainability strategy is three or more years old, it's time for a refresh.

Around the globe, we are facing unprecedented sustainable business issues. From resource constraints and scarcity to the unpredictable forces of climate change, rising income inequality and public expectations, businesses of all kinds are navigating challenging and often stormy waters. Surprisingly, many companies set sail poorly prepared to navigate this sea change.

In contrast, leading companies invest time charting their sustainability course and understanding the ever-changing forces they may encounter. They prepare and provision accordingly, never losing sight of their destination — a safe harbor for themselves and society. Transformational companies know that navigating there successfully means being responsive and adaptive along the way: when to raise the sails; when to trim them; when to wait for optimal conditions; and when to prevail. 

Navigating to a sustainable North Star

Leading companies adopt new sustainability visions periodically to stay relevant and thrive. They continuously shift their approach from improving upon today’s business models to imagining what a different, truly sustainable company would look like in the future. Then they make this destination their North Star. 

These visionaries deliberately disrupt their own business model, adopting plans to rethink and transform their entire industry. Other shifts include: turning away from viewing sustainability as a trade-off toward seeing it as an engine for growth; moving from incremental change to accelerated systemic change at scale; and leaping from modest improvements to bold actions.

Companies that have been on the sustainability journey for a decade or more typically evolve their sustainability strategies every five or 10 years. They transition from a mostly operational focus in the early days to a strategic focus on providing sustainability solutions to customers. Today, companies, such as Dow Chemical, are setting out to redefine the role of business in society. 

More than 10 years ago, Dow set out to create a culture of safety and operational efficiency. In 2015, its goal was to expand sustainability efforts into products and customer solutions. Its new sustainability vision is embodied in its 2025 goal to redefine the role of business in society, as this short video reveals.

From old to bold

The Co-operators Group Limited, a leading Canadian multi-product insurance and financial services co-operative (disclosure: the company is a client of the author), commissioned groundbreaking research into the vision stories addressed by leading sustainability companies. Indeed, to prepare for and influence the future, leading companies develop sustainability vision stories. Here are some common themes they address:

  • Megaforces: The long-term factors that will affect a business and its customers, along with the risks and opportunities that arise (aka the drivers and the business case).
  • Influence: The ways in which the company seeks to both adapt to and influence sustainability trends.
  • Ambition: The vision, what the company means by the vision, and why it is important to the company, its customers and society.

Anchoring visions

Some companies turn their sustainability visions into corporate visions; others uphold them separately. In either case, research reveals that long-term, aspirational visions:

  • Focus on the customer to enable future sustainability.
  • Aim to decouple the company’s growth from its environmental impacts, while increasing the company’s positive benefits as it grows.
  • Aim to have zero negative impacts and be net positive or restorative.
  • Aim to influence/transform the sustainability of the industry, the company’s customers and its value chain up and downstream of its operations.
  • Build sustainability into all products; products are solutions to sustainable business concerns.
  • Pursue solutions by influencing the sustainability mega-forces that will affect the business, its value chain and its customers.
  • Go beyond incremental approaches to transformational approaches, focused on the role of business in society.

With a firm hand on the helm, sustainability professionals can help steer the company’s sustainability strategy on an aspirational course using these values. This research — which offers best practices from Strandberg's study of companies including IKEA, Marks and Spencer, Nike and Unilever — can help inform updates to sustainability strategies and visions.