If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t given it a lot of thought. It sounds like just another one of those buzzwords we hear in discussions about the environment—discussions many of us tune out.
But global sustainability is more than just an environmental concept; it’s a business concern, and companies can profit by understanding and addressing it. Simply put, global sustainability means ensuring that all people on this planet have the resources and environment necessary for them to survive and thrive, now and in the future. Depending on who you are and what business you’re in, failure to take sustainability into account can, at the very least, cause you to leave money on the table; at worst, it can jeopardize your entire industry.
The purpose of this book is to clarify the importance of global sustainability today, and to share some of the (often highly profitable) “best practices” relating to it in the hope of inspiring business leaders to take action. Business is a powerful platform in the world, and one that has a proven track record for sparking change and creatively solving problems in order to generate a profit.
In the course of my research for this project, I conducted interviews with twenty-one CEOs from twenty-one companies of varying size. Some of these people, like Richard Branson, are household names; others you may not have heard of. What all of them have in common, however, is that they have learned how to “Do well by doing good.”
This list should by no means be considered exhaustive—anyone with a fair amount of business experience and a little imagination should be able to think of a dozen more—but it should be enough to illustrate for the reader the wisdom of doing business in a fair, ethical manner that takes into account the necessity of using our resources wisely.
To most readers this term may have chiefly environmental connotations—and certainly environmental concerns are important to the larger concept—but there’s more to it than that. As I said on the previous page, global sustainability means ensuring that all people on this planet have the resources and environment necessary for them to survive and thrive, now and in the future.
Global sustainability also means addressing poverty and hunger, and building societies in which strong, inclusive institutions protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual preference. If the planet survives but we have not provided an environment in which children can grow up without fear, and in which adults can find meaning and fulfillment in their lives, then what have we accomplished? We will still be perpetuating the same cycle of self-destruction that we have already come to regard as insanity. And all this matters because the survival of future generations depends upon everyone taking action.
Back in 2005 the United Nations recognized the looming issues of global sustainability and developed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These were subsequently revised, resulting in a document entitled Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda was adopted by all of the 193 countries making up the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2015.
The program comprises seventeen Sustainable Development Goals that are targeted for completion by 2030. These include the reduction or elimination of poverty, hunger, and political inequality and injustice; stopping and reversing climate change; and providing everyone in the world with access to clean, potable water. Three of these goals have been assigned top priority: ending poverty, combating inequality and injustice, and combating climate change.
All these goals are linked to social issues—including climate change; this may seem counterintuitive, but problems with our environment have a direct impact on our ability to grow food and to create jobs, and this, in turn, raises poverty levels.
These clear goals and challenges were the inspiration for this book, and all of the twenty-one CEOs I interviewed were focused on addressing one or more of them. During these interviews we discussed what global sustainability means to them, what initiatives they have taken to advance it, and what they consider to be best practices for sustainability. I also asked them how their sustainability focus affects their company culture, and how they convince their shareholders, investors, and boards of directors to invest in sustainability. I wanted to get an idea how this book might encourage other leaders to take action and get involved.
“Everything we do, we have a choice to either do it easy or do it right—and we’ve chosen to do it right every step of the way. As a result it’s made for a much stronger brand for us, and much more loyal customers. We’ve built a for-profit company that gives away a huge amount of money, but we’re growing far faster and reaching sales goals far faster than we would’ve if we’d said, ‘Let’s not build giving into our model; let’s just keep it all.’”—Ryan Devlin, co-founder, This Bar Saves Lives
The UN isn’t the only organization to have published a set of sustainability goals: Unilever, maker of such diverse products as Lipton® tea, Dove soap, and Hellmann’s® mayonnaise, devotes a page of its website to its Sustainable Living Plan, which is designed “to make sustainable living commonplace.”
Unilever is just one of many, many companies that have come to understand the value of corporate concern about global sustainability, a meme so widespread that there is even a magazine devoted to it: Corporate Knights—the Magazine for Clean Capitalism. Corporate Knights was founded in 2002, and according to its website:
As one of the world’s largest circulation (125K+) magazines focused on the intersection of business and society, Corporate Knights is the most prominent brand in the clean capitalism media space. We define “clean capitalism” as an economic system in which prices incorporate social, economic, and ecological benefits and costs, and actors know the full impacts of their actions.
Recent decades have seen a sharp rise in public concern about the environment and about social issues. Littering became socially unacceptable during the 1970s, and since the early 1990s, Westerners have grown accustomed to separating their bottles, cans, and newspapers from the rest of their trash. More recently, sales of hybrid and electric cars have risen steadily ever since the day such vehicles first came to market.
The raising of public consciousness about doing what’s right hasn’t been limited to environmental issues: the term fair trade entered most coffee drinkers’ lexicons in 2002, when the FAIRTRADE Mark began to appear on the packaging of any coffee brand that met the standards set by the Fairtrade International organization. Concern for the well-being of Third-World coffee farmers soon became the basis for the business models of importers like Sustainable Harvest® (a company whose activities we will discuss at greater length in a later chapter).
The PR benefits that accrue from being perceived by the public as a socially responsible company are incalculable . . . and indispensable, given the accountability engendered by the ubiquity of the Internet. If your company dumps a million gallons of pesticide into the Amazon River or uses Third-World slave labor to make cheap electronic devices, the public will find out; this kind of information can be gleaned at the tap of a button or the click of a mouse.
Successful businesses understand this, and so many of them go out of their way to demonstrate their social consciences to the public. It is for this reason that Cargill builds schools in Vietnam, while Virgin Group’s Richard Branson devotes effort and money to preserving and sustaining lobster populations in the Caribbean.
Some might argue that these kinds of do-gooder initiatives are insufficient, or that they are motivated by cynicism because they are good PR, and the harm these companies may do outweighs or somehow negates the good they do. I disagree. It doesn’t matter why a company is embracing global sustainability: it is important to acknowledge everyone who is focused on making a difference. I would submit that regardless of the reason you are embracing sustainability, it is a good thing. Judging the motives of a company is pointless, anyway; how often does someone start out doing good for a self-serving reason and ultimately wind up being acknowledged for his efforts—which causes him to feel good, which causes him to more fully embrace the concept of selflessness, and the cycle continues until the desire to do good becomes part of his DNA. Such people are often the biggest true supporters of sustainability.
It is also easy to judge those CEOs who have not yet been fully successful at moving their companies to sustainable business practices. But I want to acknowledge those leaders who are at least trying in earnest to make something happen. It takes courage to expose oneself to criticism, and it is important for us to focus on progress and not perfection. The larger companies—especially giant multinationals—find it particularly difficult to make these kinds of changes: their challenge is akin to that of turning the direction of a supertanker. But all change needs to start somewhere. Business leaders are all human beings trying to find their way.
The companies in this book aren’t perfect in everything they do, but they are displaying leadership in embracing sustainability. This, in turn, inspires their employees. They are finding that sustainability provides a good return on their investment, a return that would be worthwhile even if it were completely intangible. Ultimately, in business, it is about the triple bottom line: focus on people, profit, and planet—not just profit alone.
I would like to suggest that profit alone is at cross-purposes with global sustainability. It is an important driver in business, but in order to achieve global sustainability as defined, we also need to consider people and planet: people, because they are the most significant potential resources for innovation, invention, and creativity, and the planet, because we all need to have the environment to continue to be able to survive and work.
There is a term that speaks to this acknowledgement of these key components: the “triple bottom line.” This term was coined in 1994 by a British businessman named John Elkington.
Elkington believed that businesses needed to attend to three distinct, separate bottom lines. The first of these is the traditional “bottom line” that everyone associates with this term: profit. The second bottom line is people; the organization should take some measure of its social responsibility. The third is planet; how big is the company’s carbon footprint? According to the “triple bottom line” theory, only a company that minds all three P’s can hope for long-term success in the twenty-first century business environment.
In order to make the kinds of decisions that must be made for a company to fully embrace global sustainability, a business leader must practice what is called conscious leadership. Conscious leadership is leading with the awareness that whatever we say or do has an impact on everyone and everything around us. It considers all stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, investors, bankers, families, communities, society, and the planet—and has the intention of making decisions that are in the highest and best interest of all these stakeholders. Within the context of global sustainability, every person on the planet (and the planet itself) is a stakeholder, and should be considered when making decisions in business.
A conscious business leader focuses on the triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet. A conscious leader has a purpose that drives him or her and inspires the team. Conscious leaders are not perfect, but when they make mistakes, they clean them up right away. They have integrity and strive to do the right thing for the benefit of all stakeholders. Conscious leadership is a key component necessary for the success of global sustainability. I would like to invite you to adopt a conscious leadership style and consider the importance of these qualities.
In the chapters that follow I will discuss in detail each of the best practices for global sustainability that I outlined at the beginning of this Invitation, and I will explain how each practice benefits not just the world at large, but also any business that adopts it. If you’re still with me after reading all the lofty, altruistic business ideas I’ve been discussing for the last few pages, then I’ll assume I have your full attention, and that you’re open-minded, if not yet necessarily like-minded.