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Corporations Climbing Mount Sustainability


Pascal Mittermaier

Global Managing Director, Cities, The Nature Conservancy

July 2015

Tourists and locals enjoying a walk up the hillside of Zaisan Hill Memorial, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo © Nick Hall.
Tourists and locals enjoying a walk up the hillside of Zaisan Hill Memorial, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo © Nick Hall.

For many of us, the journey to a more sustainable world can be compared to traveling up an Alpine mountain pass—a steep, difficult road, with lots of tricky curves and switchbacks. It’s a challenge, and as you climb, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Sometimes you need to focus on the stretch ahead, other times you pause, look back, and as you take in the view, you have opportunity to reflect on what you’ve already achieved. As the trek progresses, it becomes as much about conquering distance and altitude as it does about deeper inner reflection and the search for meaning and significance.

Anyone who has ever tackled a major challenge can identify with some of the above. It’s true for individuals. It’s also true for teams as well as organizations and businesses.

Imagine the climb as a metaphor for change. We start at the base of the mountain; it is essentially “life and business as usual”, focused largely on the pursuit of profit and where consumption is the dominant measure of success. High above, the summit represents a potential redefinition of business as a “force for good”—one that helps prepare us for life and work on a planet soon to house nine billion of us—and where we pursue outcomes that give equal weighting to people and Planet along with profit.

Sustainability, after all, has to satisfy this “triple bottom line”. In the past 100 years, we haven’t been sustainable because we’ve exclusively focused on financial measures and growth as the all-important definition of success. This has brought dramatic imbalances, and we have obsessively achieved financial success, while ignoring the impact on nature and people. For something to be sustainable, on the other hand, it is crucial that social and environmental factors benefit as well and are clearly measured and articulated. When this happens, the sum of parts is greater than the three individual components, making for a more compelling and holistic (and valuable) outcome.

So how do we start scaling Mount Sustainability? What are these compelling, holistic advantages of doing so? Why should companies care?

Let’s start at the bottom of the mountain pass. For all of us, individuals or organizations, the journey starts with awareness, the recognition that life and business must change dramatically to align with an increasingly crowded, polluted and resource-strapped world. This awareness leads us to identify and measure activities and impacts that we had largely ignored in the past. This includes measuring energy, carbon, waste, water, provenance of materials—things that 10 years ago were off the radar for most of us. Businesses in particular now track environmental and social impacts with increasing precision, with genuine efforts made to grow the business while using fewer resources. These results are often presented in the companies’ annual sustainability or corporate social responsibility reports.

Measuring resource efficiencies and improvements almost always translates directly into monetary savings, literally “turning green into gold”. In addition, promoting these efforts helps with reputation and positioning with an increasingly aware public.

This is the first major step in the journey up Mount Sustainability, a fundamental exercise crucial in the understanding of our impact on people, planet and profit. Most corporations (and people) reach this level—and then are often stuck here. They are approximately one third up the mountain. Still today, most of the sustainability conferences focus primarily on how new driving techniques help save petrol, how plastic water bottles now contain 10% less plastic, how soda cans use paint that is less toxic, or how wooden coffee stirrers are produced from recycled timber. The message is essentially one of “do less harm while doing the same thing” and the tone is defensive and not necessarily inspiring.

Some businesses have successfully transitioned to the next level of sustainability: one where the understanding of resource restrictions is driving innovation and creating a competitive advantage. Hybrid cars, biodegradable detergents or building residential towers out of cross laminated timber rather than reinforced concrete are examples of sustainability acting as a proxy for innovation, opening new business segments and markets and positioning companies as leaders in the new economy. A car that is built in a factory that pollutes less, is made using ethical labour practices, uses responsibly sourced materials, uses less fuel and emits less carbon can claim to be (literally) driving towards a “people, planet, profit” outcome.

"We move away from just profit and talk about people, communities, nature, our mental and spiritual wellbeing."
- Pascal Mittermaier

We are now two thirds up Mount Sustainability…

It is the last stage that can unleash the transformational power of sustainability. As we near the top of the mountain pass, we are still using resources more effectively and we are still innovating. But something else is happening—we now reframe the debate away from the negative connotations of resource restrictions. It’s no longer about running a lower impact or innovative business. Rather, a deeper understanding of sustainability allows us to introduce positive concepts such as health, wellbeing, healing and restoring. We reframe the issue and focus on what is really important to our core, our essence. We move away from just profit and talk about people, communities, nature, our mental and spiritual wellbeing.

There is no better example than our daily workplaces. Many of us spend most of our lives in offices. And too often do we talk about our offices being “low carbon” or “BREEAM Outstanding.” Instead, we should be talking about how offices—packed with sustainable innovations—help us improve collaboration, productivity and engagement. Thanks to an office designed for natural light and fresh air, we feel more alert at the end of the day. Thanks to an office filled with plants, we are more relaxed, breathe better air and are sick less. Thanks to an office with good bicycle facilities, with a roof garden and serving good food, our employees are more likely to bring more of themselves, their true soul and passion to work. And thanks to an office that focuses on smart design around the activity of its employees rather than just “one cubicle and one computer for everyone” we can create environments that are much more motivating and engaging. All these “sustainable” concepts result in a deeper, more meaningful connection with people. The focus on health or wellbeing is inspiring and positive…very different from the usual talk of “less carbon”!

For the doubters, all these measures above can be quantified and monetized. Many CEOs, CFOs, heads of property and ever more are convinced this is how to use sustainability as a way to change their dialogue with customers and employees. In an office, for example, energy costs represent 1-2% of total costs while employees represent 80% or more. Sustainability, as described above, is a proven way to boost the productivity of the 80%.

Additionally, this approach is also particularly powerful because the sustainability platform helps businesses articulate “why” they are in business—the true, deep reason and purpose of our business—rather than the usual presentation of product or corporate features and benefits. As Simon Sinek elegantly describes in his golden circles metaphor, people relate increasingly to the “why” of a company and not the “what”.

At the heart of the journey up Mount Sustainability is the important reframing of the concept of sustainability away from “what you can’t do any more” because it’s bad for the planet to a positive vision of “what the world could be”. We need much more of this positive imagination and desired state in business, in politics and in our own daily lives.

Sustainability can serve as a real inspiration—very different from the negative, carbon measuring rut we seem to be in these days.

Originally Posted on LifeGate

July 22, 2015