6 steps to better business initiatives from BSR, Futerra

6 steps to better business initiatives from BSR, Futerra

Business Case Builder graph, from business-case-builder.com

One effective way to build executive suite support for sustainable product initiatives or operational strategies is to link them closely to existing corporate priorities or vision statements.

But many sustainability managers struggle with this exercise. Worse yet, some try to argue the value of their plan in terms that fail to resonate with their audience.

A new online resource called the Business Case Builder, created by sustainable lifestyles agency Futerra and strategy firm BSR, aims to address this disconnect. The six-step approach advocated in the toolkit builds on the two firms' hands-on experience helping big consumer product companies build successful sustainable business strategies. The approach is also based on information that BSR and Futerra gathered during in-depth interviews with more than 50 companies earlier this year.

"Without a clear business case, consumer sustainability will only ever be niche, stuck in pilot purgatory," said Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra. "This work helps business make that case, so now it's not about proof, it's about action."

According to a survey conducted by BSR and Futerra [PDF] earlier this year, three big things get in the way of this:

1. Short term pressures

2. Lack of hard data on business benefits

3. Difficulty quantifying the intangible outcomes of specific actions

Building on these frustrations, the resource includes 30 case study examples to demonstrate ways in which other companies successfully built value for their business through a sustainable business or product strategy. For example, the Levi Strauss Water >Less jeans brand -- which uses less water in the finishing process -- is now its fastest-selling line. Elsewhere, Sprint has saved more than $1 billion by getting people to recycle their old mobile phones.

Futerra and BSR actively seek additional examples to illustrate successful business cases, which is one reason they consider the current Business Case Builder to be a beta version, one that will evolve over time. "We hope this initial version opens the door for increased business participation and further collaborative efforts," said Elisa Niemtzow, associate director of consumer products for BSR.

6 steps for better alignment

What your team will find in the current edition are six exercises designed to help it think through the rationale and potential value of products developed for consumers interested in sustainable lifestyles (like the Levi's example), or to decide whether an operational initiative (like the Sprint recycling idea) will be beneficial for the bottom line.

1. Figure out what your customers really care about. Futerra and BSR have identified four consumer behaviors that are currently shaping successful sustainable business plans: concern about waste and resources; energy and water conservation; a desire to live healthier; and an interest in responsibly sourced products. Your job is to figure out which matters most to your customer base.

2. Target the right business driver for taking action. Don't use regulatory concerns as your primary justification for an idea if what your executives really care about is innovation. Every company is motivated differently, but you could try to use six main levers: regulatory compliance; risk management; brand loyalty; market share; sales penetration and growth; and innovation in new products or business models.

3. Define the right action. Does your idea involve developing a new product, or will it be best supported by a decision to discontinue an old business practice? Are you trying to encourage or support a behavioral shift among your customers? According to the Business Case Builder, businesses can use eight tactics to affect consumer behaviors:

• Adapt a product
• Create a new product
• Discontinue a product
• Develop a "disruptive offer" that reshapes how products are consumed
• Launch a behavioral campaign
• Offer a service that enables more sustainable behaviors
• Advocate sustainable behaviors so they become more mainstream
• Create an infrastructure that supports behavioral change

4. Identify the right benchmark for measurement. This is where the case studies really come into play. As just one example, Unilever's focus on energy and water conservation drove it to launch an adapted version of its Comfort One fabric in Asia, helping local consumers reduce the amount of water used for laundry. Not only did this move reduce risk to the long-term water supply, it helped the company build its market share in both Vietnam and Indonesia. It did, however, require the development of new technology.

5. Talk about the consumer and business value specifically in the plan. Based on the case studies, the Business Case Builder suggests that consumers are more likely to get on board if the company can connect on three main levels: the product or campaign meets a functional need; it elicits an emotional response; or it sends some sort of social signal. Be prepared to discuss where your idea fits. In addition, be prepared to discuss the following with your company's chief financial or operations officer:

• The anticipated impact of your plan, along with the benefits to the business
• An analysis of all options considered, not just the one you picked
• The expected cost
• The risks of not adopting this plan

6. Talk about the outcomes. Be prepared to offer updates on your initiative, not just internally but externally. As mentioned earlier, BSR and Futerra are actively hoping to build up examples of successful case studies that can be added to this tool over time. The size of the companies contributing ideas doesn't really matter.

You can learn more about the Business Case Builder this week at the BSR Conference in San Francisco, held Nov. 5 to 8.

Top image from Business Case Builder website