While organizations may support sustainability and promote its importance in principle, so long as it’s labeled the ‘right’ thing to do and something beyond ‘business as usual’, then progress is likely to remain slow and incremental. To generate the kind of cultural shift the world needs, we must refocus our relationship to sustainability. For sustainability to really matter to an organization, it can’t be seen as a financial burden; sustainability needs to be viewed as an opportunity to enhance performance.
It is not yet well recognized, even among industry experts and advocates, but operating more sustainably CAN strengthen an organization’s overall performance.1 One reason it is not well recognized is because the benefits often don’t appear until after the perspective shift occurs. Indeed, it is the perspective shift itself, and the organization’s relationship to the challenge, that opens the door to further possibilities.
Let’s take a look at a practical, historical example of how an organization’s relationship to a challenge or issue can affect the outcomes.
Case Study: The Emergence of Safety within the Automobile Industry
Most people born after the ‘70s won’t remember driving in cars without seatbelts, but their parents or grandparents certainly would. There was a time when safety was a much lesser priority in the automobile industry. Seatbelts were originally available as options in new cars and not as standard equipment. In fact, when legislation was introduced in 1970s requiring cars to be manufactured with seatbelts, the automobile industry lobbied against this regulation, claiming it would cost too much and put the whole industry out of business. Obviously, they lost the battle! After over 10 years of debate, the U.S. implemented regulations in 1984 and legal safety standards for cars progressively stiffened. Beyond policy, values were changing and there was no denying that it was in society’s best interest to reduce automobile-related injury and death.2
To adapt to safety requirements, companies needed to retool factories, build new partnerships, find new suppliers, retrain their employees, and update their marketing, to highlight just a few of the necessary measures. It would have been easy to resist change and do the absolute minimum in response to new regulations; however, some manufacturers were able to see that addressing safety could be more than a burden on profitability.
Becoming a leader in safety had the potential to create a competitive advantage, develop brand equity, generate publicity, secure industry awards, allow for a premium to be added to prices, and more. Today, seat belts are standard issue and companies are constantly innovating with air bags and crash absorption and avoidance technologies. Safety features are routinely advertised as prime selling points. It is fair to say that safety is now viewed as a key to success.
Regardless of the level of resistance of the automakers, the safety revolution required an industry-wide change. It was the companies who pursued safety as an area of opportunity that were able to capitalize on the changes, as they became market leaders and stronger companies. Others – those who opted to do the bare minimum – missed out.3
Sustainability as a Driver of Performance
Many people will claim that they simply don’t see the business opportunity in sustainability, and that’s precisely our point; many people didn’t see the opportunity in safety either.
Just like safety can be a driver of success, so can sustainability. It may not be initially obvious, but operating more sustainably can generate a wide range of performance enhancing benefits right across an organization, many of which often aren’t usually considered or fairly valued within our current paradigm. Here are just a few of the potential benefits:
- Reducing the use of resources and related operating costs.
- Eliminating waste and the cost of its management.
- Acquiring new sources of funding and financial incentives.
- Improving employee engagement, productivity, and retention.
- Attracting new business or customers and increasing loyalty.
- Enhancing brand equity and differentiation.
- Developing new business and partnership opportunities.
- Mitigating risk related to new regulations or taxes, increasing costs, changing consumer behaviours, etc.
- Generating innovation and new solutions.
When an organization is able to relate to sustainability as an opportunity to enhance performance, rather than as a financial burden, the prioritization, investment, risk-taking, and political will available will increase immensely. By shifting sustainability from opposing success to enabling success, the trajectory of sustainability progress will also significantly rise.4
To learn more about how sustainability creates value in a organization in a 4.5 minute video click here
Sustainability as a Driver of Performance
Demonstrating sustainability can strengthen performance will require significant change. New systems will be required, processes will need to be adapted, and stakeholders will need to be engaged. These changes will be pervasive, impacting many aspects of an organization including:
- All departments and levels of hierarchy.
- Planning and decision making.
- The day-to-day contributions of each employee.
- The relationships established and maintained with external stakeholders.
Refocusing an organization’s relationship to sustainability is not easy or an obvious tact and so most organizations do not bother to try. Some will wait for government regulations to pass. Some will respond when public opinion shifts. Some will hold off until the planet forces change upon us.
However, while many will wait, others will see the opportunity to lead the way. You can shape the future. You can avoid the stress of change under duress. You can strengthen your organization today.
If your organization is committed to sustainability, you can start by refocusing your relationship to it. While adapting may eventually become necessity, this Guidebook is designed to provide a clear path forward for organizations who want to start right away, and it will support you every step of the way.5
1. B Corporation has a collection of studies proving the business case for sustainability which can be found here: http://www.bcorporation.net/blog/studies-making-the-business-case-sustainability
2. Information on seatbelt legislation and changing values found through the Prevention Institute here: http://www.preventioninstitute.org/component/jlibrary/article/id-100/127.html
3. To learn more about the safety revolution around vehicle occupants see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, A Half Century of Attempts to Re-Solve Vehicle Occupant Safety here: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/ESV/esv16/98S6W24.PDF
4. The Network for Business Sustainability’s report, Valuing Sustainability concluded that addressing sustainability positively affects the financial bottom line. The report can be found here: http://nbs.net/knowledge/business-case/valuing-sustainability/executive-report-valuing-sustainability/. They have also compiled the best research to help you understand how to create value through sustainability here: http://makethecase.nbs.net/?utm_source=Make+the+Case+E-Blast&utm_campaign=Make+the+Case+e-blast&utm_medium=email
5. For a variety of resources created by Bob Willard that help explain the business case for sustainability and how to do it see his website www.sustainabilityadvantage.com