What's Next in Corporate Sustainability?

What's Next in Corporate Sustainability?

It seems like every company has gone green these days, but in spite of the abundance of corporate commitments and initiatives, the environmental and social news is not getting much better. What can the next generation of business leaders do to truly make a difference, while still taking care of the bottom line?

In order to better understand what's next in corporate sustainability, I recently brought together four experts for a panel discussion with Net Impact San Francisco: GreenBiz Group's own Joel Makower, Jamais Cascio, research fellow at the Institute for the Future, Michael Kobori, vice president, Social and Environmental Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., and Glen Low, principal at Blu Skye Consulting.

 Left to right, Julie Menter, Joel Makower, Michael Kobori, Glen Low and Jamais Cascio.What I took away from the discussion is that while it's important for companies to continue taking bigger and bolder steps towards reducing their footprint, the long-term goal of business leaders should be regeneration, not just zero impact. Companies should create more clean water, more clean air, more wealth, better health. In order to achieve this goal, it may be time to start thinking about a new economic paradigm, one based on resilience instead of growth.

First of all, it's important to recognize that many companies are taking bold steps to reduce their impact. For example, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are competing to make their plastic bottles with the most plant material, Unilever recently committed to halving the environmental footprint of its products by 2020 and Walmart wants to help Americans eat healthier.

In addition, Makower noted that "today, businesses are walking more than they are talking."

As consumers, we might not be aware of the progress being accomplished because many of the companies taking action are in the B2B space while others are cautious of being accused of greenwashing.

Nonetheless, while the incremental steps underway are making a difference, it is clearly insufficient given the scale of the challenges we are faced with. In spite of all of these efforts, the planet is still warming, the oceans are still being depleted and there are still a billion people suffering from hunger.

The panelists had a broad array of recommendations to make business more regenerative:

  • Make sustainability relevant for your organization: Understand how it fits into your company culture, highlight how it can enhance your company's business model
  • Have the courage to be first: Be willing to do what's right even when the business case is unclear
  • Increase transparency: Learn about the impact of your products along the value chain, share this information with others
  • Collaborate with the entire system: Many problems cannot be solved by just one company -- the entire system (competitors, suppliers, NGOs, government...) needs to participate for change to happen
  • Value nature: Understand the value of ecosystem services and what it would cost if you had to pay for those services ("align your P&L with the laws of nature" as Low said)
  • "Think long, fail fast" (in Cascio's words): Understand what needs to be different 30 years down the road, experiment constantly along the way to find the models that work
  • Envision what happens when we get it right: Remember to always paint a positive picture of the future to inspire change

That said, leaders must be aware that there is still a long way to go. Today, there are no scalable business models that are truly regenerative. Even though ideas like biomimicry and cradle to cradle have inspired many, those concepts have proven hard to implement in the real world. Emerging business models like those based on collaborative consumption (car sharing for example) are a great step in the right direction but have not proven scalable. In the end, Cascio suggested that it's our growth based paradigm that needs to be re-thought. By focusing on resilience, building our ability to withstand shocks that no one can predict, we might find a better path to true sustainability.

In conclusion, what the next generation of leaders need to do now is to continue reducing their footprint while rethinking the economic model in which they operate. We need both evolution and revolution for business to become a regenerative force in the world.

A triptych of notes from the panel discussion.

Photos by Rayna Wiles, designer, frog design.