By: Dave Sherman, Blu Skye
On the eve of the Winter Olympics, over 300 CEOs and senior executives of Canadian businesses met in Vancouver to accelerate the implementation of sustainable business practices. The highly interactive day not only gave the executives an opportunity to explore new opportunities for collaboration, but may yet prove to have been a green business tipping point in Canada.
David Cheesewright, Walmart Canada’s CEO and the host of the event, kicked off the day by challenging the delegates to use the summit as a vehicle to “build a bigger team” – to share lessons learned and best practices that will benefit all businesses, large and small. He encouraged the delegates to create stretch goals and foster experimentation in their organizations, with the understanding that the road to sustainability is full of unknowns.
David Suzuki put the present moment in context for the Summit participants: our grandparent’s and parent’s generations did not understand that they were destroying the very systems that support our lives but, us–we are the first generation that does understand. How can we face our children and grandchildren and say that we knew and we did nothing? With that premise, summit participants spent the day thinking and talking not only about what meaningful action would look like but how they might work together to make it happen.
Participants were primed for the afternoon collaborative working session through the sharing of highpoint stories in their own experiences and by a lively panel discussion where the leaders of Mountain Equipment Coop, SC Johnson Canada, Heinz Canada, Walmart Canada and a senior executive of Maple Leaf shared case studies of how they have simultaneously addressed sustainability challenges and created business value. Panelists also discussed how leadership, collaboration and innovation were fundamental to enabling Canadian businesses to make real progress against the challenges that Suzuki so eloquently delineated. The key, they agreed, will be to make addressing sustainability challenges core to the business rather than a profit-draining sideline.
Then it was time to roll up their sleeves. The afternoon was spent in working sessions with more than 40 small groups at tables of eight where executives envisioned a sustainable future for their companies, identified innovations required to overcome current obstacles, discussed the types of “mindset shifts” needed to bring these about and identified key areas for collaboration to bring this about. A number of these were shared with the plenary.
When asked How does collaboration enable the success of an initiative? the responses underscored the collaboration is imperative to making progress against current challenges.
- “Collaboration supports alignment to the good, removes barriers, and simultaneously brings us to solutions faster and more efficiently.”
- “Collaboration becomes a prerequisite for doing business; increases the speed of change because of collective resources working together, and lowers costs because they are shared among thousands of companies.”
- “We are full of ideas and collaboration would make these great ideas happen!!”
- “It can’t happen without it!”
The group voted on collaborative innovation ideas generated and the winner was one that helped companies understand and manage the sustainability challenges in their supply chains. The mindset shift needed for this innovation was to move from the view that business is self-contained to the view that business is an active and contributing member of society. Recognizing the importance of executive leadership, one group purposefully wrote, that no matter what the collaboration effort, it had to be a “CEO-led sustainability initiative.”
The day culminated with the launch of a Green Challenge from Walmart Canada. Walmart Canada executives committed to initiating new sustainability initiatives during 2010 and challenged participants to commit to do the same. 26 companies including Kraft, Maple Leaf Foods, PepsiCo and SC Johnson signed on immediately and additional commitments were expected in the days that followed.
But as with most conferences, it was the corridor and cocktail conversations that provided a glimpse into what was really going on. At the bar that evening it was clear that this was not just another conference. The most powerful executives in Canada had engaged together in envisioning how they could lead Canadian business toward a sustainable future and there was palpable enthusiasm, expansive thinking and a truly collaborative spirit.
Was this a tipping point for executives in Canada? Time will tell. But in the words of one executive following the summit – “I will never view sustainability the same way again. Sustainability is truly an imperative that will shape the future of business and the world in which we operate.”
For this one executive at least, the Green Business summit was a tipping point.