In the business world, “Sustainability” started out as Lunatic Fringe talk, then moved up to window-dressing for Corporate Responsibility sections of Annual Reports and subsequently got a new and sometimes tawdry life as a Green Marketing opportunity. Now, setting a company’s sustainability agenda is one of the most important and valuable things that its executives must do. And people at all levels can find great innovation ideas in sustainability.
I attended the Sustainable Brands conference in 2007 and it was a hive of excitement over the power of Green Marketing and adulation of cool campaigns and programs. Just two years later, the same conference was astoundingly different: It had become clear that both the issues and opportunities are much more fundamental and addressing them is no longer a matter of choice, it is an imperative. Energy and water will be scarce and more expensive for everyone. In addition, a combination of consumer awareness and regulatory expansion are making transparency – a lot of reporting of your sustainability practices – mandatory. You can deal with these as burdens or you can try to find ways to create advantages for your company. In addition to creating new obligations, these and related challenges are creating major opportunities for growth and effectiveness.
What to do?
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the many aspects of sustainability. In the face of that, companies often either take a “do what regulations require” approach or launch token programs (e.g., office recycling). Those approaches will put a company at a disadvantage against competitors that take a more strategic view.
The best sustainability opportunities vary from company to company. How do you find the ones that suit your situation? One of the best tools that I have seen for understanding the many sustainability opportunity areas is a single fold-out document put together by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in 2008. Here is their own description of it:
“The 2008 Sustainability Outlook Map is a guide to sustainability strategy for the coming decade. It’s organized in four rows, representing four broad strategic responses to sustainability challenges. These four rows intersect with seven columns representing diverse perspectives, or lenses, on sustainability- diverse arenas of innovation. Together the rows and columns form a grid for exploring future sustainability strategies.”
The map also notes “wildcards” — some events that may or may not take place but which would have high impact.
The IFTF team has thoughtfully included suggestions for how to use the Map for setting a relevant strategy for your particular company. The Map and other related documents are available on the Institute for the future website, and, specifically at this url: http://www.iftf.org/SustainabilityOutlook
While it is great for corporate strategizing, like many drugs, the Map has other uses. Specifically it is a powerful career management tool. College/grad-school graduates and anyone considering a new career direction should get it. It is a terrific way to see fields that are emerging and will be good bets for job seekers. Young people will benefit because many areas on this map are likely to have a rich set of future opportunities; taking a job in these areas is less likely to be a dead end. Mid-career people will find innovative spaces to apply transferrable skills and ideas. For mid-career people there is an added benefit: The social contribution of jobs in this space provides the kind of satisfaction that is fulfilling after the novelty of early work life tapers off.
Although I have focused on the IFTF map, there are many other sources of great sustainability information and education. Contact me if you want more suggestions by leaving me a message here.
Regardless of the source of your sustainability inspiration, the potential rewards are many and large.
- Employee Recruitment and Retention. Finding this at the top of the list of benefits may surprise you. Studies show that a company’s sustainability reputation has a significant impact on its ability to recruit talented young employees. This is part of the organic demand for Affective Action: People won’t settle for good job specs and compensation if they can get that and the feeling for being part of a virtuous and societally positive team too! Employee engagement among existing employees goes up in response to corporate sustainability progress. For more on the impact of higher employee engagement, see “Use the Force, Luke”.
- Product Development and Differentiation. Sustainability-related opportunities are still in the early stages of developing. There are millions of existing technologies, products and services that can profitably help solve the issues. A brief analysis is sure to reveal:
- New applications (e.g. existing filtration technology applied to small on-site water reclamation systems)
- Product modifications (e.g. solar-powered versions of lights or appliances)
- New Products (e.g. multi-format pH sensors)
- Lower costs. (e.g. reduced sourcing costs from rationalization of chemicals used)
- White Space. Whole new industries or business models are possible. (e.g., shared cars, collective IP, big data from remote environmental sensors)
Be Bold. You are in Safe Company!
I have met many people who think all this is great but still think that their company is not ready to take sustainability (or the people who talk about it) seriously. Perhaps this view into GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s case will give them courage:
“From early on, Immelt sensed that eco-focused strategy might be suspect, so he pushed hard for GE’s Ecomagination program to use clear metrics from the outset. “Our company is one of engineers and finance people. So I was worried this would come across as too soft,” he said. To counter this concern, Immelt laid out four hard targets: To double R&D in the area; next, to quadruple revenue for eco-products to $20 billion on green sales; third, to be transparent about our efforts to the public; and lastly, to run GE under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol. “We’ve done all this and the fact of the matter is that the effort has gotten our employees involved … and saved us money,” he said.”
Source: Greenbiz.com 2010 click here for full article
De-risk your business, de-risk your innovation program by leveraging sustainability trends. You’ll do well by doing good.
Have you successfully championed a sustainability program in your company?
What areas do you think are the most exciting?
Tagged: Affective Action, business model, career management, corporate responsibility, Ecomagination, GE, green marketing, high touch/low cost, innovation, Institute for the Future, Jeff Immelt, regulatory expansion, Strategy, sustainability