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What do a category-5 hurricane and a global big box retailer have in common? For Adam Werbach, these two seemingly unrelated entities gave him inspiration for a more comprehensive look at sustainable systems thinking, and how this thinking is essential for moving forward in an unpredictable and rapidly changing world.
Opening his new book, Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto, Werbach shares a personal take on the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He recounts a trip he took to New Orleans in 1997 to brief the Mayor’s office on climate change, and the potential catastrophic effects it could have on their city.
Like many scientists, policymakers and academics before him, Werbach spoke of the aged levee system and the dire need for wetland restoration. For decades these arguments fell on deaf ears, but became all too real when Katrina hit land in 2005.
Werbach looked upon the disaster as a personal failure – a failure to convey the severity of the costs of inaction. But it also served as a catalyst for change. He knew that thinking strictly in terms of the environment was no longer acceptable, that a broader strategy, a strategy that he later refers to as moving from “green” to “blue,” must incorporate all facets of sustainability: social, economic, environmental and cultural.
Werbach burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old president of the Sierra Club. He later formed his own consultancy and now serves as the global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S. He has brought his fair share of controversy within the industry, whether it be the speech he gave at the Commonwealth Club exploring the themes of the death of environmentalism that was covered in the popular essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus or his controversial work with Walmart, these professional experiences are built into Werbach’s Strategy for Sustainability, and are vital for his argument that developing and executing the aforementioned strategy is critical for a business’ survival.
The themes and language are familiar, but the approach is fresh and interwoven with relevant and current brand examples (Clorox, method, IKEA, Frito Lay, etc.) and economic and political issues (auto industry, financial crisis, health care). A few highlights of Werbach’s approach include these three core strategy principles:
-STaR Mapping (Society, Technology, and Resources), which “places less emphasis on competitive analysis and more on discovering the little steps you can take today throughout the organization”
-North Star Goals, “the strategic direction toward which an organization drives to reach greater sustainability”
-TEN Cycle (transparency, engagement and networking) which “all work together cyclically to renew the conditions under which you can prosper in the long term and achieve your North Star goals”
Stakeholder engagement is critical to these strategies, and by incorporating sustainability into its core values, companies will find it easier and easier to achieve their North Star goals because there will be buy-in at all levels. In addition, more and more companies are seeing employees driving sustainability initiatives from within, which puts “people at the center of the conversation,” increases pride of ownership, and develops human capital.
It’s been more than ten years since he made that presentation in New Orleans – would his argument have been stronger if he would have utilized these tools and strategies? Although he still may not have been able to sway the powers that be, I think the answer as to whether it would have been a more powerful case is an unequivocal “yes” – and it is fair to say that transparency and long term planning are crucial to Werbach’s current thesis, and serve as a powerful approach for any company facing these uncertain times.