What do you think when you hear the word “Sustainability?”

Image from the Economist's Sep 17th 2011 Schumpeter column Green Growth


“Sustainability.” What do you think when you hear the word?

(Be honest.)

If you’re already a believer, then this simplistic post probably isn’t for you. No, this is more for the folks who have yet to dip their toes in the water. And, in part, for the naysayers.

And yet, it’s hard to believe that there are many naysayers left.

According to a survey conducted by Accenture and the UN Global Compact, “93 percent of CEOs view sustainability as critical to their company’s success.” And in a 2009 global report compiling data from over 1,500 corporate executives and managers, the Boston Consulting group finds that “companies acting aggressively on sustainability are reaping substantial rewards.” EVEN in the face of econimic downturn. And yet, a clear majority of survey respondents said that their companies had neither “developed a clear business case for sustainability” nor “acted decisively to fully exploit the opportunity and mitigate the risks that sustainability presents.”

Despite being named as a critical factor for government, international and business communities – and having been defined by the United Nations for well over 25 years – there are STILL misperceptions surrounding sustainability. It can be considered gilding on a lily. Or worse: unnecessary and expensive add-ons to already over-burdened systems.

Sound like anything you’ve heard before?

Ask most anyone unfamiliar with the crux of sustainability, and you’re likely to encounter misconceptions and arguments: “Green feel-good, rah-rah fluff.” “It’s a gussied-up recycling program.” “Expensive! How can I pay for that when I have other costs to cover” “That stuff is only for big companies.” “Definitely requires a lot of staffing….” Not only are these wrong, they completely miss the basic concept behind sustainability: that it’s the ability to grow and flourish without unduly burdening the present or future.

Broken down to raw meaning, sustainability is defined as the ability and capacity to endure. Sound good so far?

So – apply this concept to business. Would you even begin to question relevance? Take the definition to heart and sustainability isn’t only about growing, it’s about pure survival. Literally, sustainability concerns itself with a company’s ongoing chances of living to see another day.

Okay, so … MAYBE that’s a little over the top.

Or is it?

Richard Goode, Director of Sustainability at Alcatel-Lucent, states: “In good times, sustainability can be a competitive differentiator, in lean times, it’s a defensive strategy, and in really hard times, it can determine your survival.”

Former Xerox CEO Ann Mulcahey credits “being a good corporate citizen” as saving the company from certain bankruptcy.

In this light, sustainability is well beyond the scope of “necessary or irrelevant” conversation. Frankly (and this is good news), it’s already woven into your organization. And sustainable behavior is just business conducted smartly (again, the crux of how we’re supposed to be doing business in the first place).

An A.T. Kearny study reports that  “sustainability-focused companies outperform their peers” and goes on to say that companies “committed to corporate sustainability practices” achieved “above average performance in the financial markets during the financial crisis.” And that the performance differential “translated to an average of $650 million in market capitalization per company.”

That’s hardly an “unnecessary and expensive add-on” in my book.

Thee years ago, Vijay Kanal said “companies that choose to turn a blind eye to the benefits from becoming more sustainable are putting themselves at an immediate competitive disadvantage, and quite possibly set themselves up as targets for regulation in the long run.”

It’s now (and continues to be) more true than ever.

But, again – what is it?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll begin to look at Sustainability: what is it, best practices, reporting, what advantages sustainability can bring to your company, and ways to get started on the journey. And maybe a couple of items worth mentioning when “sustainability” comes up at your next meeting.

All without trying to sound too preachy. Or sales-y.  (I hate it when those things happen).

Watch this space, or get in touch to learn more.

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