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Strategic Advantages for Corporate Leadership in Focusing on Sustainability

Here's how your staff should learn to design for corporate sustainability.

Consistently, the demand for sustainability-oriented thinking is becoming pervasive in every sector of social, political, and business affairs. If one thing was to be understood about the voices of those with an interest in sustainability it should be that they don't plan on going away.

For the leadership of large businesses, the reality that human activities are testing the limitations of natural resources, livable pollution levels, the containment of pathogens, and cultural barriers to growth is a real concern. 

However, many propositions for response to these problems seem — at least in their tone — anti-business, and even a little ascetic. Is this actually the case, though? Is sound business strategy actually at odds with sustainable business practices?

In the following critical ways, it is clearly not. By looking at sustainability through these lenses we may manage to unify business interests and sustainable practices, rather than make compromises between them. We may also be able to foster a renewal of trust between public and business communities.  

Agility & Adaptability

While sustainability has become synonymous with planting trees and tightening belts, it is — foundationally — the pursuit of methods and patterns likely to make your efforts viable over a long span of time.

Stein's maxim that "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." has long been held as an excuse for ignoring criticism of practices which may lead to an abrupt end because if an end is approaching we will get to it, and if it isn't then we get to enjoy the ride. However, any simple examination of the history of abrupt ends could prove fitting to inspire prudence.

Abrupt ends are seldom inevitable, though, on journeys which allow for changes of course. Developing a nimble organisation is one of the most business-friendly ways to become more sustainable. Businesses which are slow to change and loath to learn are bulky, inefficient, and much more prone to blunderously harming the communities they serve.

When one considers the ideas behind Zappos' famous return policy, or the extraordinary efficiency of Herman Miller's chair manufacture, it is hard to think that these are anything but companies which are prepared to make changes, adapt, and stick around for the long haul.

Begin your sustainability strategy with assessing your agility and adaptability. Look for the ways in which you can both deepen those traits, and communicate them to your audience as value adds, as reasons to support your brand.

Renewables & Responsibility

Chief among reasons for social mistrust of large business is that big business takes what it wants and leaves a mess along the way. The resources from which business derives its products come from the commonwealth, at their origin. And, the cost of cleanup and remediation is born by the taxpayer or future generations.

The more people can see this the more the public will resent business. This very problem is an opportunity, as many businesses have seen. People don't want to be cynical, not most; they are eager to see exceptions and cheer for the hero who takes a higher path.

When SUEZ, an international innovator in sustainable development, saw the glut of unsold packaged foods that were going to waste they saw an opportunity to innovate.

SUEZ's de-packaging program takes food which could easily be turned into soil remediation commodities — were it not locked away in containers, and containers which could easily be recycled — were they not full of spoiled food, and turns them both back into commercially valuable resources.

Any business which shows the public that it will consistently take responsibility for its inflows and outflows will gain increasing public support and loyalty in the years to come.

Investment in, and stewardship of, renewable resources sends a clear message of sustainable intentions and also helps to vertically integrate and secure a company's supply chain. Repurposing what could easily be discarded takes effort and innovation, and also generates new products and services.

Do not make the mistake of thinking of sustainability as an afterthought in your business planning, or as a necessary chore of the contemporary discourse. Your board and your executive staff must learn to see the process of designing for sustainability as synonymous with not only planning to have a company at all in five, twenty, or one hundred years, but also with planning to thrive, come what may.

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