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Mainstreaming Sustainability: Business Imperatives for Making Sustainability Matter

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 12/10/2015 Lisa Xia

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One of the toughest things I've had to consider is whether sustainability really matters to companies in a fundamental way. Not too long ago, an executive I very much respect, advised me not to develop a career in sustainability because I would always find myself at the periphery of a business, not the core.

As a sustainability consultant for the past five years, that's a tough pill to swallow. You don't get into this business because it's lucrative; you do it because you believe in it. Working from the corporate side, you also believe that fundamentally, criticism and protests aren't enough to drive change; rather, the opportunity lies in the ability to shift--if even incrementally--the way large multinationals look at their business to effect more sustainable practices, and thinking, at scale.
I came to my first Sustainable Brands this summer with this weighing on my mind--the question if companies actually give a shit. And how do you better speak sustainability in the language of business to influence executives to shift business activities? Unless you are one of the companies where sustainability is truly a top-down initiative, delivering sustainability and social impact is typically a push from the middle, and you have to work to make a compelling case.
How do you do it? Sustainable Brands showcased a few points:

  • Data, data, data: Beliefs are nice, but data is critical. John Schulz, AVP of Sustainability Operations at AT&T, shared the most influential case he made to the business was showing data from a study he conducted. In it, talking about CSR to consumers doubled AT&T's net promoter score (the willingness that someone would recommend AT&T to a friend). After that, marketing listened.
  • Tell me why your product is better: Make a superior product, and tell consumers why it is better. Use sustainability as a proof point. While there are positive indicators that sustainability matters more in purchasing decisions, particularly among millennials (for example, if year-over-year sales growth of sustainably marketed products outpaces that of conventional products), mainstreaming sustainability should not mean giving it a handicap. Rather we should show sustainability + innovation yield better products.
  • Make authenticity is king: Large companies sometimes seek the reputations of small impassioned companies and companies built on an authentic commitment to purpose --without the passion or willingness to invest. When I conduct workshops and prompt the question: "Who do you admire", I find that we seem to admire the TOMS, Patagonias, KINDs, Chipotles and Unilevers (an Edelman client) of the world. These companies were either built on a vision for a sustainable future, or have invested heavily in a shared purpose. They don't say it--they mean it, do it and live it. And the sales follow. Authenticity is king.
  • Think business first: I'm often asked by graduates how to get into field of sustainability. My advice is to understand the business first. Understand operations. Understand supply chain. Understand marketing. I often say that purpose marketing done right happens where needs of the company (brand), customer, consumer and community meet. Understand business needs--then apply principles of sustainable thinking into the business.

The climate is changing. Social issues continue to challenge us. Our environmental woes will get worse. The point here is not to get down. Rather, we have an opportunity to mainstream sustainability--to change the discussion about sustainable business to one about just good business.

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