Changes in Perspective: Towards a Sustainability Mindset

It’s hard to believe these two related diagrams were developed in 2002. Post the 2008 Wall Street collapse, the unstable economy in Europe, and the slow economic recovery in the U.S., it’s time for us to consider and embody this change in perspective in our business operations today.

I use these two diagrams often in speeches and to describe the journey towards sustainability today. My description usually begins with the environment as the largest single concern businesses should have on their plate today. Why? Because in the next 10 years our dwindling resources will make this discussion a necessity. Why not be ahead of the curve and plan for these changes versus being forced to do it when resources are in limited supply?

In Diagram One, we see the largest circle is the economy. That business philosophy is simply…money first. Make money and make more money. While I concur that companies must make a profit to stay in business, forward-thinking companies realize that the social and environmental aspects of their operations not only enhance their bottom line, but create a positive brand and customer and employee loyalty. These same companies have taken on the responsible, accountable business philosophy of examining their carbon footprint and ways they can address any negative impacts on the environment. It’s no longer just about making money. This diagram illustrates the lack of connection between the economic aspects of a company and the social and environmental aspects of doing business—the old mindset.

If you are in business today, consider Diagram Two.  Consider it because it has much to teach all of us about a needed change in perspective.  Our ability to make money, our ability to create effective social systems is dependent on environmental sustainability. Without environmental resources, we can not operate our businesses and create processes and systems for our employees to carry out our operations. Without it, we cannot operate, period.  If we recognize the importance of the environment, we realize that our next emphasis is our people. Without sustainable social systems (ways to address the issues of multiple stakeholders—employees, customers, etc)—we will not stay in business.

It’s time to understand the old systems and embrace the new. Our changed perspectives come first from an understanding of our current systems. To me, Diagram two illustrates that companies must make environmental sustainability a priority to create lasting success.  It’s no longer money first; it’s environment first, and then social systems and then making money.  What perspective are you embracing?  What will it take for you to take one small step to address environmental sustainability within your Company?  I hope the water won’t run out and the energy costs won’t skyrocket before you make some changes within your company.

Diagrams © Giddings, et al, 2002.

Disclosure and Corporate Responsibilty in the Colgate-Palmolive Case

In an article written by Tom Stabile for Business Ethics (A Magazine of Corporate Responsibility) entitled “Controversial Chemical Poses Disclosure Challenge for Colgate-Palmolive”, I weighed in on the corporate responsibility aspect of the case.

“It’s a detached defense, sticking to discussion of its product and not engaging in the greater triclosan debate. What time will tell is whether Colgate is telling consumers enough to position itself best for when the FDA makes a final determination on triclosan, says Barbara Burton of The Burton Company in La Jolla, Calif., a corporate responsibility consultant. ‘You have to determine what to disclose,’ she adds, ‘When youʼre not disclosing what you should, you assume risk.'”

“Burton, the consultant, says the tide is turning toward greater disclosure, particularly with initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact and the development of the International Organization for Standardizationʼs 26000 standard on social responsibility, which calls for broad transparency with stakeholders on matters related to product safety. ‘You donʼt want to take the chance of not disclosing information about potential safety concerns,’ she says. She adds that while wide disclosure in a case like Colgateʼs could have a negative short-term impact on market share, it also could generate long-term customer good will.”

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Sustainability: It’s About Values

I explain sustainability in simple terms to begin my conversations with corporate executives. How do you treat your people (Social sustainability)? How do you treat the environment (Environmental sustainability)? And how are you making your business profitable for you and your employees (Financial sustainability)? These questions are often categorized as “the triple bottom line,” meaning a company’s social, environmental and financial bottom line.

It may be a surprise to many that a focus on these core sustainability concepts can actually enhance profits during the down economy. There are numerous examples. Take InPro Corporation, a Wisconsin-based manufacturing company. A recent article in crw.com pointed out that the company “invested $43,800 in green operations in early 2010 and saved $190,284 by year’s end.” Focusing on products with improved environmental characteristics and reducing its environmental footprint, among other green alternatives, the company predicts savings will reach more than $216 by the end of this year. What’s more, employees within the company were asked to look at sustainability from each of their business units.

What does this say? To me it speaks of values and an “expanded” or “sustainability” focused set of values. When I talk about values, most people refer to values such as, honesty, integrity, compassion, etc. But let’s take another step with those values. Let’s say the corporate value is honesty. As well as being and acting personally honest, what about the “voice” of the corporation, as it relates to honesty? Honesty may mean that when there has been a problem, the corporation honestly reports this information to their stakeholders. What about responsibility? We can be personally responsible, but as a corporation, are we responsible for our impacts on pollution, waste management and product safety issues. I’m suggesting that all companies today expand their traditional look at their mission, values and vision. We are not simply working on our own set of values, even our values with the departments and teams within our companies. We are working on living values beyond the walls of the corporation—and applying them worldwide to the people and markets we touch every day. And to me, we need to first identify and then apply these “expanded” values sets to reduce our environmental impacts, retain employees that are motivated and excited and partner with communities and customers that “get” these values.

The mission, vision and values exercise is an exciting place for companies to begin their sustainability journey because once these values are selected and embraced; the next step is how to measure what we do. In one word: Metrics. It is important that we all measure our own progress. For example, are we saving enough for retirement? How much is enough? How much should we save per month; per year? If a company chooses a “sustainable” value of stewardship, for example, what does this mean in terms of a metric? For example, how much water, energy has been saved last year? What is the goal for next year? How can we refine processes and practices to conserve even more this year?

Think about sustainability as moving away from a single bottom line and in that process—and as a company, how you care for people and the environment. Begin to live this in your values within the company and measure where you’re going. Sustainability is actually just expanding solid business practices—practices designed to enhance employees, customers, communities and the environment. But all companies can begin this process by examining their values, setting a course for the future, measuring their impacts and reporting how their doing. In the end, it’s really about what values you and your company is known for….and the legacy your company will leave. What are your sustainable values?