A Vision of Real Corporate Leadership on Sustainability

The basics of sustainability excellence are fairly well known by now:  reduce your footprint, create products and services that help customers do the same, drive employee engagement, think value chain, track data and enable transparency, and on and on.   But real leaders will go further and address the scale of the sustainability challenges we face by fundamentally remaking their companies.  Here’s what  is envisioned in a few key areas:

Science-Based Goals

Footprint reduction targets are important, but if the goals are not based on what scientists tell us – i.e., we need an 80% reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions – they’re not good enough.  Sony and a few others have targeted zero impact by 2050.  This level of commitment needs to become the norm, and then a few brave souls can go beyond reducing harm (even to zero) and set goals to build restorative enterprises.

Policy

While uncommon today, the basic level of performance on policy should be to make lobbying efforts consistent with core business strategy and public messaging (for example, are you proudly launching products that use less energy, yet lobbying hard against higher efficiency standards?).  Real leaders go much further and lobby for stricter standards and aggressive action on climate.  CEOs can demonstrate their external leadership by promoting this agenda with corporate peers and government leaders.  Some companies are on track, committing to the recent “2 Degree Challenge Communiqué” or joining groups like BICEP (led by Ceres, Nike, and others) which demand strong climate policy action.

Product and Service Innovation

Reducing the customer’s footprint will need to be the core aim of all innovation efforts and all product lines (not just a sliver of the portfolio as it is today).  Sustainability innovators will open up their creativity process, inviting customers and partners to offer innovative solutions (GE’s Ecomagination Challenge is a good example).  Innovators will embrace disruption and heresy (which I’ve written about before) by helping customers use less of their products. For a glimpse of the future, see Unilever’s campaigns to get customers to reduce water use and Patagonia’s Common Threads, which offers a grand bargain: “We make useful gear that lasts a long time…You don’t buy what you don’t need.”

Valuation and Investments: Financial and Operational Metrics

Leaders such as P&G and GE have set aggressive revenue targets for their greener products.  A few companies put a price on carbon for internal capital allocation decisions or, like DuPont and Owens Corning, set aside a percentage of capex for eco-efficiency investments.  These actions help correct the inherent flaws of ROI decision-making by valuing sustainability more explicitly.  The next step is fully incorporating intangible value – employee engagement, customer loyalty, brand value, and the like – as well as measuring and including all externalized costs in investment decisions.  Two trendsetters, Puma and Dow, have begun this important journey.

Investor Relations

I believe that the relentless pursuit of short-term, quarterly profit goals to please Wall Street analysts is bad for companies – great enterprises very rarely seek profit alone – and certainly isn’t good for the planet.  Like Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman, the real leaders will stop providing quarterly guidance and ask managers to focus on the real measures of success: making great products, serving customer needs, creating good jobs, and driving both cash flow and long-term profitability.  The most sustainable companies will become “benefit companies” or “B Corps”, with a broader charter than just pursuing shareholder value.  Seek greatness and sustainability, and the money will follow.

Resources Dedicated

Most companies give their sustainability execs woefully inadequate resources to do their stated jobs, let alone transform their companies.  A truly committed organization will allocate resources equal to the challenge and will give the sustainability function real power.   I suggest creating a “skunk works” team run by sustainability, along with perhaps corporate strategy and R&D, to question everything and challenge the core business model (e.g., What if the product were a service? What if we used no fossil fuels?).  This is how companies can systematize heretical innovation.

Employee Engagement

Educating all employees on sustainability principles and creating green teams are good first steps.  Tying all executive compensation directly, and substantially, to sustainability goals is even better.  But real leaders should work to convince those hostile to change throughout the organization…or eliminate them.  In the words of Jim Collins in Good to Great, “get the right people on (and off) the bus.”  Leaders will also help employees pursue sustainability in their own lives and communities and provide an outlet for organizing campaigns, such as the awareness-raising “climate ride” conducted by apparel company Eileen Fisher.  If the workplace is appropriate for United Way drives, why not for climate action?

In short, I’m imagining a very different kind of company. The overwhelming challenges we face demand profound shifts.  Of course, much more than I’ve mentioned will need to change – on the social side of the equation for sure – so please let me know what you would add to my vision of true leadership.


Andrew Winston, founder of Winston Eco-Strategies, is the author of Green Recovery, a strategic plan for using environmental thinking to survive hard economic times. He is also the co-author of Green to Gold, the best-selling guide to what works – and what doesn’t – when companies go green. Andrew is a globally recognized expert on green business, appearing regularly in major media such as The Wall Street Journal, Time, BusinessWeek, New York Times, and CNBC. Andrew is dedicated to helping companies both large and small use environmental strategy to grow, create enduring value, and build stronger relationships with employees, and customers.

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