Looking around these days, its hard to be optimistic for the future ..... global climate change, ocean acidification, declining freshwater resources, deteriorating world fisheries, growing concentrations of environmental pollutants, peaking oil, concerns for agricultural productivity .... and the list goes on. In a world with 6 billion people growing inexorably to 10, a little stress is to be expected, but are we doing enough to manage them?
Yvon Chouinard doesn't appear to think so. In a recent interview with Fast Comapny magazine (see Patagonia's Founder on Why There's "No Such Thing as Sustainability", July 2009) Chouinard had this to say:
“If you keep your eyes open as you travel around, you realize we are destroying this planet. I'm very pessimistic about it."
"Patagonia now exists to put into practice all the things that smart people are saying we have to do not only to save the planet but to save the economy."
"In the broadest sense, working on causes rather than symptoms. If you get down to the real causes, a lot of our society's biggest problems are happening because we're destroying the planet. As we cut down the forests in the Congo, diseases start jumping over to humans. The Pentagon says new wars are going to be resource wars. We're a long way from having a sustain-able society. That's why One Percent for the Planet gives strictly to environmental causes. You can give money all day long to symptomatic things and you're not going to solve the problems."
"There's no such thing as sustainability. It's just kind of a path you get on and try .... each day try to make it better.”
Mr. Chouinard talks about working on the causes not just the symptoms. And while sustainability is generally considered to be a balanced focus on environment and social concerns and the economy, I interpret his concern for focusing on the "real causes" to mean a focus on the environmental aspects.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review seems to agree with this approach, looking at how a company can become environmentally sustainable - and coming closer to Chouinard's "real causes" (see Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation, September 2009) (Note: the link is courtesy of the NYTimes Green Inc. blog).
Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad and M.R. Rangaswami look at the benefits of environmental sustainability (e.g. cost reduction, increased revenues, new markets, etc.) and outline a five-stage pathway for companies to follow. They conclude that sustainability is now the key driver of innovation among corporations today. Briefly, their 5 steps include:
Viewing compliance as an opportunity;
Making value chains sustainable;
Designing sustainable products and services;
Developing new business models; and
- Creating next-practice platforms.
The article is good but if you are trying to figure out where to get started, it does tend to look at the issues from 60,000 feet.
Losing a bit of altitude (but not much), the CERES Principles provide a "code of conduct" of sorts. The Principles, originally released as the Valdez Principles, are the product of CERES (the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies) a coalition of companies, investors and public groups. A key focus of the Principles is on the importance of regular reporting on corproate environmental management programs and results.
If you really want to get your hands dirty (and actually make some changes), you will need to start digging into the specifics of the company and its circumstances. The earliest practitioner I'm aware of is John Elkington and the UK consultancy he created, SustainAbility. The Economist recently profiled Elkington/SustainAbility and their coining of the phrase "Triple Bottom Line" as part of a series on management gurus (see Triple Bottom Line, August 27th). The "Triple Bottom Line" refers to a focus on people and the planet in addition to the usual focus on profits.
While SustainAbility was the first, sustainability advice is a growth industry now. Hopefully some of the practitioners and companies can begin to acheive some of the kind of progress that Messrs. Nidumolu, Prahalad and Rangaswami advocate (and that Chouinard seems to be making).
P.S. Today the NYTimes Green Inc. blog has an interview with C.K. Prahalad that focuses on the innovation portion of the authors' message (see Innovation at the Bottom of the Pyramid). Its definitely worth a read.