Hmmm Sustainability – “the folks I report to don’t eat granola” (June 20, 2012)

EVENT SUMMARY – Bob Willard’s “The New Sustainabilty Advantage” Book Launch and Workshop – “The video of this event can be viewed on Bob’s new DVD, The New Sustainability Advantage: The Presentation

A meek looking young woman sits before a large imposing man, seated behind an even more imposing desk.  He flips distractedly through her report: “I’ve been looking over your green proposal, it’s fine, just fine, I’m sure it will make people feel real good about the company, should go over big with the tree huggers too, but see, the folks that I report to, they don’t eat granola.  So let me ask you, why should I sign this?”  She confidently answers, “This plan could cut our energy costs by 40% a year, and we spent 18 million dollars on energy last year.”  The scene explodes with colour, cheerful music bursts forth, and the man quickly asks, “So where do I sign?”

That scene is played out in an IBM advertisement as it promotes its Go Green initiative.  IBM’s “Energy and Environment” webpage announces, “Sustainability is no longer an option.  Sustainability is an imperative.” But in 1997, when Bob Willard was developing a new leadership development program for IBM’s top 500 global executives, he tried to convince IBM Chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner of the ‘Sustainability Imperative’ but the business wasn’t ready for this message; Willard’s efforts resulted in nothing more than disappointment and frustration.  Now, 15 years later, it seems that businesses like IBM are not only ready to hear the message, but some are even ready to promote it, stand behind it, and stake their financial future on its merits.

How did such a seismic shift in business thinking occur at a traditional corporation like ‘Big Blue’?  And, perhaps more importantly, how can we drive other corporations, both big and small, who haven’t yet ‘seen the light of corporate sustainability’, to embrace this new way of doing business, one that is both more responsible and more profitable?

The Business Case

One way to answer these questions is to look at the work undertaken by Bob Willard since his transition from senior IBM leader to international sustainable business expert and author.  In his 2002 book, The Sustainability Advantage, Willard made a compelling case for sustainability. More and more, business leaders now speak not just of the bottom line, but of the ‘triple bottom line’ of People, Planet and Profit. Businesses that understand that People, Planet and Profit are mutually beneficial, rather than at odds with each other, have come to realize significant business growth, benefits and return on investment.  For example, General Motors now earns $1 billion a year selling scrap materials that used to go to landfill – that profit doesn’t even include the value the company has achieved by reusing and repurposing materials within its own operations. How many car sales would it take to earn over $1 billion additional profit?!

Since the release of The Sustainability Advantage, Willard has grown as an author, speaker, educator, and advocate for sustainable business.   On June 20, 2012, at the offices of Bennett Jones, in Toronto’s First Canadian Place, Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series hosted almost 100 people who gathered to raise a glass and toast the launch of Willard’s newest book release, The New Sustainability Advantage.  In this updated 10th anniversary edition of his original book, Dr. Willard illustrates 7 specific ways in which the business case for sustainability is now even more compelling than it was 10 years ago:

  1. Increased revenue
  2. Reduced energy
  3. Reduced waste
  4. Reduced materials
  5. Increased employee productivity
  6. Reduced employee turnover
  7. Risks to revenue and expenses

The Sustainability Imperative

Recognition of the Sustainability Imperative has been growing in mainstream business circles over the past decade.  In 2010, David Lubin and Daniel Esty stated in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “Over the last 10 years, the ‘Sustainability Imperative’ has emerged, magnified by escalating public and governmental concern about climate change, industrial pollution, food safety, and natural resource depletion, among other issues.”  And in 2011, Michael Porter and Daniel Kramer asserted in HBR that, “The purpose of a business must be redefined around creating shared value… how to reinvent capitalism – and unleash a wave of innovation and growth.”

During the June 20th TSSS event, attendees were guided through an interactive workshop focused on how to build and sell a compelling business case for deploying more proactive sustainability strategies.  Willard did acknowledge that some of the claims in his book may seem far-fetched.  He admitted that he was forced many times to redo and repeat his calculations about how smart sustainability strategies can affect profits.  Why did he have to repeat these calculations?  Well, because he suspected readers would scoff at his results and claims – not because they weren’t compelling or impressive, but because they seemed too good to be true!  The strategies and measurement systems outlined in his book offer proof that an integrated approach to sustainability can improve profits by at least 51% to 81% over 3 to 5 years.  Those in attendance at the event were very interested in the open source simulator dashboard and worksheets that are available free through Willard’s website and can be used to build a tailored business case for sustainability for any business, of any size, in any industry.

Breakout Discussions

As is the norm at TSSS events, the formal presentation was followed by animated breakout sessions and a lively large group discussion.  One breakout discussion group suggested that often the potential profits from sustainability may be better understood by equating the potential cost savings to how much it would take in additional sales/profit generation to achieve equivalent results – this would be very compelling to businesses with low profit margins such as grocery retailers. Another breakout discussion group suggested a more innovative approach to financing sustainability initiatives is needed, such as third party (e.g. government) upfront financial assistance for small/medium sized businesses, with the funds repaid from savings realized.

Participants shared ideas about how to move businesses beyond mere compliance, to an integrated sustainability strategy, and even more importantly, to a model driven by passion and purpose.  Suggestions included creating opportunities to focus on specific projects within companies – this would allow for a longer term ROI approach on specific projects and that approach could later be expanded on an overall strategic level.   Additionally, sustainability advocates must collaborate more with colleagues with expertise in accounting and finance, who can sift through corporate data to identify opportunities. And, there must be further efforts to influence government, because the public policy arena has an almost infinite potential to impact on business practices.

The excitement in the room was palpable as attendees shared ideas and realized the power of Willard’s new simulator dashboard and worksheets. These tools are about far more than calculations that can be used to prove the business case for sustainability.  They can act as a catalyst to stimulate conversation and ignite inspiration and creativity among employees at all levels of an organization.  It is through discussion and innovation that business will find both its passion and purpose in the Sustainability Era.

“The video of this event can be viewed on Bob’s new DVD, The New Sustainability Advantage: The Presentation.”
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Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS) is widely recognized as Canada’s premiere forum for dialogue and problem solving among sustainability professionals.  Each year over 1000 sustainability change agents attend TSSS events to exchange ideas, to network and to be inspired by leading companies that have integrated sustainability into their business practices. Please click here to learn more.

  • Wendy

    Ok – so it’s not the main point of the article, but what a stupid add. A report that didn’t state – clearly and preferably in the first paragraph – that the sustainability program would achieve a 40% reduction in energy costs, should have been rewritten. Maybe the add should be about how to write a proper business case

  • Di B

    Completely agree Wendy!

  • I took this course from Bob Willard a couple years ago and glad I did because the financial bottom line seems to be the most important form of value that business leaders care about. Crafting a spreadsheet that outlines reducing costs, avoiding future costs and increasing revenue is now my lead for sustainability OD intervention – especially increasing revenue opportunities. Increasing revenue through creativity can be the most impactful and I organized a way to view that, like looking through lenses, that you can explore in my presentation to be downloaded here – http://db.tt/Vt3T9Hi. Its a big download but worth the wait. The stand-up version is a four hour interactive workshop.