This week’s focus: Sustainability has been on the corporate agenda for two decades or more. Yet, while some companies have brought sustainability into the core of their business, for most, sustainability still sits at the periphery of the organisation. It’s something that is seen as necessary and even desirable, but, when push comes to shove, sustainability considerations are down-weighted in the pursuit of sales and profits.

Such decisions are understandable, but I believe that they are increasingly myopic. Consumers are increasingly turning to companies that can deliver better environmental solutions. As more people reduce their meat consumption and buy electric or hybrid vehicles (now 20% of UK car sales), they want to buy other products and services that fit with their environmental values.

Let’s imagine that companies lie on a sustainability continuum. At one end of the continuum sustainability is a PR exercise; at the other it is a core element of a company’s purpose and competitive strategy. Along that continuum, I see three key clusters of businesses:

  1. Pretenders. For these companies, sustainability is, at best, a PR issue and viewed by top management as a distraction from ‘real’ business. Sustainability initiatives are seen as tangential to ongoing commercial activities and performance.
  2. Followers. These companies follow the activities of their key competitors. They invest in sustainability initiatives (covering packaging and energy usage, for instance), but their actions are generally defensive and reactive. Their aim is not to be left behind or seen as ‘bad’ rather than to become a sustainability leader.
  3. Leaders. These enterprises are seeking to change the rules of business in their market. They see sustainability as a strategic advantage and integral to their organisation’s raison d’être and, as a result, are investing for sustainability leadership and long-term growth.

Last week I led a strategy session for a leading UK business. During the meeting, the executive team discussed the goal of becoming the sustainability leader of its market. The energy resulting from that conversation was tangible, but the, more importantly, executive team identified clear competitive advantages from becoming a sustainability leader.

Where does your company sit on the sustainability continuum? And what benefits could your business gain if you embraced sustainability at the heart of your organisation’s purpose and competitive strategy?

Off The Record: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

Hey farmer, farmer

Put away the DDT

I don’t care about spots on my apples

Leave me the birds and the bees