Executive Education

Sustainability: It’s More Than Just Being Green

Mark Lefko

If you conduct an informal poll among your colleagues asking them to define what “sustainability” means, you’ll probably get a lot of responses related to the idea that it relates to environmental consciousness or “going green.” But that definition sells sustainability short.

Simply put, global sustainability means ensuring that all people on this planet have the resources and environment necessary for them to survive and thrive, both now and into the future. We need to address poverty and hunger and building societies in which strong, inclusive institutions protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual preference. If the planet survives but we have not provided an environment in which children can grow up without fear, and in which adults can find meaning and fulfillment in their lives, then what have we accomplished?

That’s why global sustainability is more than just an environmental concept; it’s something that each and every one of us needs to take seriously. That goes double for those of us in the business world. Business is a powerful platform across the globe, and one that has a proven track record for sparking change and creatively solving problems in order to generate a profit. In other words, embracing sustainable practices isn’t just for governmental agencies or nonprofits; it’s also something companies can profit from if they understand the goals and help drive toward them. At the same time, depending on who you are and what business you’re in, failure to take sustainability into account can, at the very least, cause you to leave money on the table; at worst, it can jeopardize your entire industry. Let me explain.

Back in 2005, the United Nations recognized the looming issues of global sustainability and developed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These were subsequently revised, resulting in a document entitled Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda was adopted by all of the 193 countries making up the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2015.

The program comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are targeted for completion by 2030. These include the reduction or elimination of poverty, hunger and political inequality and injustice; stopping and reversing climate change; and providing everyone in the world with access to clean, potable water. Three of these goals have been assigned top priority: ending poverty, combating inequality and injustice and combating climate change—which has a direct impact on our ability to grow food, to create jobs and, in turn, to raise poverty levels.

So why does your company need to worry about being sustainable along these lines?

One reason is that the PR benefits that accrue from being perceived by the public as a socially responsible company are incalculable . . . and indispensable, given the accountability engendered by the ubiquity of the Internet. If your company dumps a million gallons of pesticide into the Amazon River or uses third world slave labor to make cheap electronic devices, the public will find out; this kind of information can be gleaned at the tap of a button or the click of a mouse.

Case in point: Consider what Guilherme Leal, co-chairman of the board of directors at Natura, the Brazilian personal care product manufacturer, told me about the company’s Sustainability Vision (which also can be found on the company’s website). “Natura wants to go further than just reducing and counteracting the impacts of its activities,” he said. “We believe businesses must create net positive impact, which means contributing to regenerate nature and make society fairer than today. That’s why in 2014 we developed a new Sustainability Vision. It directs our business to generate positive social, environmental, economic, and cultural impacts by 2050, and sets ambitions and commitments through 2020.”

Leal isn’t just blowing smoke here: Natura has been a member of the Union for Ethical BioTrade—which is dedicated to preserving biodiversity and ensuring fair dealing throughout supply chains—since the organization’s founding in 2007.

Some might argue that these kinds of do-gooder initiatives are insufficient, or that they are motivated by cynicism because they are good PR, and the harm these companies may do outweighs or somehow negates the good they do. I disagree. It doesn’t matter why a company is embracing global sustainability: it is important to acknowledge everyone who is focused on making a difference. I would submit that regardless of the reason you are embracing sustainability, it is a good thing. Judging the motives of a company is pointless anyway; how often does someone start out doing good for a self-serving reason and ultimately wind up being acknowledged for his efforts—which causes him to feel good, which causes him to more fully embrace the concept of selflessness, and the cycle continues until the desire to do good becomes part of his DNA. Such people are often the biggest true supporters of sustainability.

It is also easy to judge those CEOs who have not yet been fully successful at moving their companies to sustainable business practices. But I want to acknowledge those leaders who are at least trying in earnest to make something happen. It takes courage to expose oneself to criticism, and it is important for us to focus on progress and not perfection. The larger companies—especially giant multinationals—find it particularly difficult to make these kinds of changes: their challenge is akin to that of turning the direction of a supertanker.

But all change needs to start somewhere. Business leaders are all human beings trying to find their way. And leaders that are open to expanding their thinking when it comes to the subject of global sustainability eventually realize that sustainability provides a good return on their investment, a return that would be worthwhile even if it were completely intangible. Ultimately, in business, it is about the triple bottom line: focus on people, profit, and planet—not just profit alone.

In order to make the kinds of decisions that must be made for a company to fully embrace global sustainability, a business leader must practice what is called conscious leadership. Conscious leadership is leading with the awareness that whatever we say or do has an impact on everyone and everything around us. It considers all stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, investors, bankers, families, communities, society, and the planet—and has the intention of making decisions that are in the highest and best interest of all these stakeholders. Within the context of global sustainability, every person on the planet (and the planet itself) is a stakeholder, and should be considered when making decisions in business.

A conscious business leader focuses on the triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet. A conscious leader has a purpose that drives him or her and inspires the team. Conscious leaders are not perfect, but when they make mistakes, they clean them up right away. They have integrity and strive to do the right thing for the benefit of all stakeholders. Conscious leadership is a key component necessary for the success of global sustainability. That’s why the path I encourage you to follow is that you can do well by doing good.

Have you read?

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Written by: Mark Lefko.

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Mark Lefko
Mark Lefko has coached and mentored more than 100 CEOs and company presidents, leading countless strategic planning retreats, team-building sessions, cooperate think tanks and industry roundtables. He is the author of "Global Sustainability: 21 CEOs Show How To Do Well By Doing Good."