Top 10 trends in sustainable business
— Giselle Weybrect is author of The Sustainable MBA: The Manager’s Guide to Green Business. Any views expressed are her own. —
Sustainability is taking the business world by storm. It seems that every day a new company is getting on board in an incredible range of different ways. While some are still only approaching it on a very superficial level, plenty of others are really taking sustainability seriously, exploring what it does and can mean to their business, their suppliers, their employees, their customers and the role that they can plan in strengthening society and the environment while also running an increasingly successful business.
Here are ten interesting trends happening right now around the world in sustainable business.
1. A deeper understanding of what sustainability means.
The days of sustainability strategies being principally about putting recycling bins in the office and printing on both sides of the printer paper are (hopefully) increasingly behind us. Although this is still an important part of most strategies, sustainability in a business is about so much more regardless of the size of your business, and we are quickly moving away from a ‘sustainability is all about saving the world but not about business’ mentality into the ‘using sustainability to strengthen my business while also having a positive impact on society’ one. Companies such as General Electric are leading the way.
2. Your employees are your secret weapon.
A sustainability strategy doesn’t count for much if you get someone to write it up, print it off and put it behind a glass window. Your employees are your strength; give them a strategy and goals to get excited about, and ways to be part of implementing it. Employees know their jobs, their products better than anyone else so are best placed to see opportunities to make them more sustainable. Give them the tools and motivation to be able to be part of moving forward in the chosen direction. (For example eBay’s green team and 3M’s Pollution Prevention Pays Program.)
3. Speaking with rather than to your customers.
For years now businesses have communicated their sustainability commitments or activities to their stakeholders and customers through their websites, through annual reports and presentations. They trusted that a glossy, 90-page brochure available to download as a PDF would give people the information that they wanted. Today companies are exploring ways to create a two-way conversation between the company and its stakeholders in this area and are involving customers in their sustainability strategies.
4. Your impact goes well beyond what happens in your office.
Every product, every service has a story. Whereas before, most people had no interest in what that story was and were only concerned with the price tag, today companies such as Patagonia are either voluntarily choosing to, or are being forced to, not only know but really understand the life story of what they sell. It is no longer just about the price and performance of the radio, it is about how the radio is designed, what materials are being used and where are they coming from, how the radio is being produced, how it is being sold, how it is being used by consumers and what consumers do with it once they are finished with it and then increasingly how that radio becomes another radio or another product altogether and becomes part of the story of a new product.
5. Really get to know your suppliers.
Increasingly businesses such as Pepsico are realizing that in order to make their businesses more sustainable they need to take some time to really get to know their suppliers in ways they often haven’t in the past. Are your suppliers helping or hindering your sustainability efforts? What about the suppliers of your suppliers. Are there ways that you can help them help you?
6. The gap is getting bigger, which is both good and bad.
The difference between the leaders in sustainability and the laggards is getting noticeably bigger. Those who started early and/or really took the time and energy to take a serious look at how sustainability can and is affecting their business are pushing ahead in leaps and bounds (i.e. Walmart). For those companies who are behind or early in the process this means some catching up and some innovative thinking. However, it equally means that there are many lessons to learn from those who have tried all this before including increasingly robust information about business cases. As standards in this area both voluntary and regulatory are becoming more stringent, laggards are going to be forced to get their acts together soon, and fast.
7. A more open environment to explore sustainability.
Companies are increasingly working together; with competitors, across industries, with NGOs and with government, to get it right when it comes to sustainability. Combine this with a trend towards increased transparency in reporting (for example Global Reporting Initiative and the Carbon Disclosure Project) means they are disclosing increasing amounts of information about the impacts that they have on the planet, both positive and negative. As awareness levels about sustainability go up, companies are being encouraged to be honest about the challenges they face, and to work together on finding the solutions.
8. The ‘business case’ is wider than most realize.
Sustainability isn’t a switch that you turn on and off within a company, where the benefit can be quantified in such a straightforward way. Companies such as Unilever are seeing that pursuing different sustainability strategies have an effect on many parts of the business, from employee and customer retention to better relationships with suppliers ensuring higher quality goods.
9. Your new recruits will take you there.
We are seeing new employees coming into the workforce that not only have strong business knowledge, but an interest and knowledge of sustainability and how and where the two intersect. MBA programs around the world such as the Schulich School of Business and Haas School of Business are starting finally to actively look at how to bring this knowledge to their students to ensure that the next generation of business leaders see it as just the way you do business. We aren’t there yet, but the wheels are starting to move.
10. Having fun with it.
In many ways, sustainability is all about innovation. As individuals and companies become more experienced with what sustainability means and how to approach it, we are seeing companies having fun with it, being very innovative, creative, and experimental. Just look at the creative packaging of Puma’s Clever little bag and Amazon’s Frustration-Free packaging.
Handout photo shows Puma’s Clever Little Bag, designed to replace the cardboard shoebox. REUTERS/Handout