Sustainability, a Competitive Business Strategy

strategyFor years we in the business world have had an adversarial relationship with the environment. Think about it, we even call it Environmental Compliance. Compliance, doesn’t that mean that we are meeting the established rules. We saw it as a cost of doing business, something that we had to do. We didn’t look at it as a possible area of differentiation, innovation or cost reduction. It was just a problem child that we had to deal with.

Thankfully, professionals with business experience started stepping forward and recognized that these departments could help the bottom line. Folks like, Dr. Joseph Ling: The Father of Pollution Prevention, at 3M. Dr. Bradley Allenby, author of Industrial Ecology, Dr. Stuart Hart, William McDonough and Andy Savitz.

These individuals were able to relate environmental and social activities to financial results creating a new appreciation for an often overlooked area within the organization.

One of my favorite quotes is from Lee Scott, former Wal-Mart CEO, “If we throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice–once to get it, once to have it taken away. What if we reverse that? What if our suppliers send us less, and everything they send us has value as a recycled product? No waste, and we get paid instead.”

That’s a big break from the traditional thinking that Paul Hawken described as “end-of-the-pipe” clean-up in his book The Ecology of Commerce. Instead of meeting regulations and simply putting our waste in state-of-the-art landfills, now we have CEO’s talking about turning that trash into cash. Who knew?

So now we have a movement that is not about protesting, it is about investing. Investing in processes that will reduce waste volumes, energy and water consumption. Investing in the sustainability of the organization. When margins are razor thin, finding a few hundred thousand dollars in waste expense starts to look attractive.

There are other reasons to look at sustainability as a competitive business strategy; product or service differentiation, just look at method or New Leaf Paper, to open new markets, new product or service innovations, think about  GE ecomagination, TerraCycle or Recyclebank, and don’t forget about employee retention, when your folks really care about their company they are going to hate to leave what they find exciting. These are just a few of the areas within your organization where you can incorporate sustainability activities.

As with any other strategic initiative you need a structured approach. Something that will allow you to bring all of the elements together in a cohesive manner. You are going to be orchestrating the activities, so you better be able to see how what you are proposing is going to interact with the different areas within and outside of your organization. Sustainable Development is that structure. This structure is what we are going to continue discussing in future postings.

I remember an old saying, “If you are going to plan for a year, plant a seed. If you are going to plan for ten years, plant a tree. But, if you are going to plan for a 100 years or more, educate the people.” When I’m asked “What are you trying to do with your blog”, that’s my answer…educate the people!

Hopefully, somewhere along the way we’ll talk about something that you are wondering about and something that you can use in your sustainable efforts.

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