This is the time of the year when you see endless summaries of 2013. The ones about sustainability can usually be characterized as a bag of mixed news, filled with both good and bad news from the past year.
And it can be quite depressing, right? After all, mixed news means that at best we move forward in tiny steps when it comes to sustainability, while we need to be running as fast as we can.
Nevertheless, I think there’s no room for depression. First, it doesn’t really help get you anywhere. Second, looking carefully at the trends that shaped 2013 you see that there are also some good reasons to be optimistic, even if you’re into systematic changes, not just incremental ones. And no, this is not about choice editing and ignoring the bad news, but about identifying which sustainability trends become dominant and which ones are about to vanish.
So looking back at 2013 here are five trends that should keep you optimistic about sustainability in 2014:
A couple of weeks ago two major companies presented us with their vision for the future. Unilever launched Project Sunlight, “a new initiative to motivate millions of people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles,” while Jeff Bezos revealed that Amazon is experimenting with drones that will deliver packages to customers within 30 minutes.
The visions are very similar and very different at the same time. They aim to disrupt ‘business as usual,’ are customer-focused and innovative, yet while one’s desired future is a world “where everyone lives well and within the natural limits of the planet,” the other’s desired world is one utilizing advanced technology to provide customers with lower prices and faster delivery.
In a way, Unilever’s new campaign and Amazon’s plans are clear reflections of the choices we have ahead of us: a more sustainable path that is about making better choices or a less sustainable path where innovation is limited to the context of the consumption culture. The first can lead to systematic changes while the second can generate incremental improvements at best.
So which of these paths will we take – the one with skies filled with drones getting packages in no time to your doorstep or the one filled with people adopting more sustainable behaviors for the sake of their children?
I definitely hope it will be the latter, but I’m worried it might be the former. Here’s why:
Two months ago I wrote about IBM’s triple-benefit employee engagement programs. I thought it would be difficult to find a company with a similar program that provides substantial value for the company and truly benefits the community or people that the employees work with. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Meet Project Belize, PwC’s international development leadership program in Belize. Since 2008, the firm’s professionals at all levels, from interns to senior partners, travel to Belize City every year to host financial literacy camps, provide scholarships to students, train teachers and principals, and build educational playgrounds.
Throughout the years, Project Belize has become one of the most competitive programs within the firm: out of the thousands who apply, less than 400 are selected to participate. What makes Project Belize unique according to PwC is that it combines the firm’s business goals with social impact and it’s an international volunteer experience to boot.
To learn more about Project Belize I talked with Shannon Schuyler, Principal and Corporate Responsibility Leader at PwC. Here’s an edited version of my interview with her:
You might think that the most interesting news coming from Microsoft these days is about who will be the next CEO, campaigns to limit NSA surveillance of users or free versions of Windows Phone and Windows RT being offered to device manufacturers.
But, no, their foray into wearable technology, specifically a stress-detecting bra, takes the cake. It’s not that the tech giant is suddenly interested in entering the lingerie business – Microsoft is more interested in what can be placed in the bra – a sensor system “that monitors the wearers moods and helps to regulate stress eating.”
The idea, Microsoft researchers explain in a recently presented paper, is to use wearable technology to support behavior modification in health. More specifically, the company is “focused on building a persuasive system for behavior modiﬁcation around emotional eating.” This system includes physiological sensors placed into women’s brassieres that can detect changes in emotions and report them to the wearer through a phone app in order to help them avoid emotional eating.
In other words, Microsoft is exploring the intersection of smart technology with health behavior change. While the idea sounds promising given the market opportunities in this field and the company’s capabilities, the stress-detecting bra still lacks what it needs to become a successful product.
Three years ago Adam Davidson, Planet Money’s co-founder, had an idea: let’s make a T-shirt. His idea wasn’t to diversify Planet Money, NPR’s podcast and blog covering the global economy into a new business, but to tell the story behind the T-shirt’s creation.
What’s so interesting about T-shirts? Davidson, who was inspired by Pietra Rivoli’s book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy explained that T-shirt turns out to be a great lens through which to view the world economy. “Every T-shirt you wear tells the story of the economy we all live in.”
Three years later Davidson’s idea became a reality, with a series of podcasts on NPR documenting the T-shirt’s journey from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta through the different manufacturing phases in Indonesia, Colombia and Bangladesh all the way back to the U.S in a container.
This series provides some important insights on the world economy, globalization, trade and consumption. Here I’d like to focus on the 4 lessons in sustainability I found most interesting in this series:
MBA students want to work for responsible companies. According to Net Impact’s 2013 Business as UNusual report, 67 percent of the 3,300 MBA students surveyed said they would take a 15 percent pay-cut to have a job in a company committed to corporate and environmental responsibility.
An even higher percentage of the students (88 percent) said they would take a 15 percent pay-cut in order to work for an organization whose values are like their own.
Some may question the validity of such results, but let’s assume for the sake of the argument that these results actually reflect reality, especially when it comes to students in sustainable MBA programs (I wouldn’t make the same argument though for the general population).
So these sustainable MBAs want to work in the Unilevers, Nikes, SAPs and M&Ss of the world. But what about the ‘bad’ guys? Wouldn’t it make more sense for these MBAs to take a job at the ExxonMobil, JP Morgan, BP, Monsanto, or Lockheed Martin?
On Sunday, Swiss voters rejected a proposal to limit executives’ pay to no more than 12 times the lowest-paid workers in their companies.
This vote ended a very interesting week in which the Governor of Colorado proposed strict limits on greenhouse gas leaks from drilling, Scotland embraced natural capital, the EU decided to devote 20 percent of its 2014-2020 budget to climate spending, the Massachusetts state Senate passed a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour, the two groups of retailers that signed separate safety agreements in Bangladesh agreed on joint inspection standards, and JPMorgan signed a $13 billion settlement over its mortgage practices.
What’s the common denominator in all of these stories? These are developments that address some of the major sustainability issues we face, from climate change to inequality to ethics of supply chains. Some of these developments seem to be more successful than the others, but they all look to generate systemic and substantial changes.
Oh, and there’s one more thing – they have nothing to do with sustainable consumption.
While the sustainable business world keeps focusing on ways to increase sustainable consumption as a path to a more sustainable future, when we look at reality we see a clear pattern – systemic changes that make or will make a difference are derived by sustainable citizenship, not sustainable consumption.
It’s not that sustainable consumption has no value or importance whatsoever. It’s just that it mostly generates incremental results when it comes to the most important issues like climate change, increased scarcity of our resources or inequality. Therefore, given the time constraints we have to redirect our ship onto a safer route, it might be the time to seriously discuss the effectiveness of the sustainable consumption vision. And is there a better time to do it than on the week of Black Friday?
Earlier this week Jo Confino talked at the Sustainable Brands conference about the need to develop a new narrative for the sustainable space. “This is the biggest challenge for sustainability going forward…We come from CSR to sustainability, but sustainability as it is currently is not going to save the world. We need to move on to a completely new version,” he said.
While this is true for every part of the sustainable business world, it seems relevant in particular for the part that is constantly searching to make the business case for sustainability, including investors, shareholders and the C-suite.
The good news, as we learn from a new webcast from PwC on integration of ESG issues in deals and valuing their impact, is that a new narrative that investors and business can understand and relate to is actually emerging faster than we might think. The bad news though is that there are still plenty of obstacles ahead before this narrative can become a game changer.
Interestingly, it all starts with translating sustainability into ESG (Environmental, Society and Governance), a term that investors and companies seem to feel more comfortable with: “Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments.”
Some of you are probably already getting ready for Thanksgiving, reviewing Melissa Clark’s recipe for simple roast turkey, while others are getting ready for Black Friday, reviewing the best apps that will help them find the best deals on this big shopping day.
Many are probably getting ready for both days, which seem to be increasingly intertwined like one big celebration that starts with a large turkey and ends with a visit to a nearby store looking for a really (but really!) great deal. This trend has become even more evident this year with the increasing number of retailers opening their stores on Thanksgiving Day even earlier than they did last year. At the same time, we also have a few retailers, including Costco and Nordstrom, that refuse to open on Thanksgiving.
The question I ask myself (and you): Does anyone care?
Let’s face it: most people don’t really care about the fact that retailers open as early as 6am on Thanksgiving, (Kmart), 5pm (some Toys R Us stores), 6pm (Walmart) or 8pm (Macy’s) and stay open all night, and what it means for those employees in terms of their ability to enjoy a peaceful holiday with their families. In fairness, I guess some people might feel bad about it, especially if they are aware that many employees aren’t paid more for working on Thanksgiving, but nevertheless, it won’t stop them from shopping in these stores.
In other words, the temptation to take advantage of a good deal is stronger than any ethical consideration.
Last month I mentioned the challenge we have envisioning what a more sustainable world looks like. While many have tried to present us with pieces of the puzzle, very few looked into providing a comprehensive outlook of our life in the next decades from a sustainable point of view.
It’s not that surprising – after all, in such a complex and unpredictable world can we really make a forecast on what the world will look like in 2050 for example? Well, Jonathon Porritt believes it’s possible.
His new book The World We Made (Alex McKay’s Story from 2050) provides us a detailed look not just into what the world could look like in 2050, but also the journey there. The good news is that if we play our cards right, we can find ourselves in 2050 in a world that is “massively improved by smart, clean technology, and committed to a much fairer, more sustainable model of economic growth.” The bad news is that the path forward is going to be messy and not very pleasant for many.
How do the two go hand in hand? Well, this is what makes this book so interesting. It’s written from an optimistic point of view that “securing a genuinely sustainable world for around nine billion people by 2050 is still possible,” but nevertheless acknowledges our flaws and the fact that we mostly learn our lessons the hard way when it comes to sustainability.
Last weekend Michael Moss wrote in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine about a challenge he made to ad agency Victors & Spoils: get people to want to buy and eat more broccoli. The result was a great campaign that gave broccoli an extreme makeover any vegetable would dream about.
This made me wonder – if it can work for broccoli (well, at least in theory – this was a fictitious campaign, not a real one), could it also work for sustainability? After all, broccoli and sustainability are very similar when it comes to the demand side – we know they’re good for us, but from a variety of reasons they’re not that appealing and therefore most us are don’t give them the love and respect they deserve.
It’s clear that businesses can’t shift into a more sustainable future without having consumers on board. As Paul Polman once said (referring to Unilever), “If we are going to halve our environmental impact and help a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, we have to inspire consumers to choose more sustainable products and adopt more sustainable habits when they cook, clean and wash with our aspirations.
But how do you inspire consumers to adopt sustainability? Let’s look at the broccoli campaign and see what lessons we can apply to sustainability’s makeover.
Just in time for the BSR conference running this week in San Francisco, BSR and GlobeScan published their fifth annual State of Sustainable Business Survey report. One of the world’s largest annual surveys of corporate sustainability executives, this report provides an interesting look into the state of sustainability in business.
The survey’s comprehensive exploration of companies’ attitudes and behavior generated a balanced presentation, showing both the achievements and challenges of companies in embedding sustainability into business. Add to it the ability to compare the results to past surveys and you get a valuable tool to check the pulse of sustainability in business.
The survey is full of interesting findings and lessons. Here are four of the more important lessons I learned:
Houston we have a problem: while 7 out of 10 Americans say they always or almost always recycle, only 1 in 5 consistently recycles bathroom items. How do you close this gap? Johnson & Johnson, the company that came up with this data, believes it has the answer.
Two weeks ago the company launched a new campaign, “Care to recycle,” on Tumblr. This is “a gentle reminder to recycle empty containers from the bathroom,” explained Paulette Frank, VP of Sustainability for the J&J Family of Consumer Companies. “We hope it leads to a change in the behavior of throwing recyclable bathroom items in the trash and a greater awareness that we can all contribute to a healthy planet,” she added.
The initiative, explains J&J, “includes a video that site visitors are encouraged to share to help spread the word and show their commitment to recycling in the bathroom, along with a number of highly shareable posts that include helpful information and tips.“
Sounds great, right? After all, what could go wrong with an awareness campaign utilizing social media with a focus on Tumblr? In two words: almost everything. While this campaign is full of good intentions I believe that most chances are that it’s going to fail. Here are the reasons why:
Currently, I am working with a group of MBA students on developing an employee engagement strategy focusing on sustainability for a large corporation. It is an interesting task, since everyone seems to agree that this sort of employee engagement can be very beneficial for any corporation, but it’s still very difficult to find companies that have implemented it successfully and can provide a good example of how to do it right.
Then I attended COMMIT! Forum earlier this month in New York, where I finally saw the light. I found one company that not only provides a great example of successful engagement, but also offers a model that can be a game changer in the intersection of business and sustainability. It is no other than the Big Blue, aka IBM.
Two IBM programs were presented during the first day of the conference: Corporate Service Corps and Smarter Cities Challenge. Now, neither of these programs is new – the first began in 2008 and the second in 2010, but this is actually even a better reason to pay more attention to what they have to offer as they already have a record to show.
Nathan Shedroff, the Chair of the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts explains that one of the most difficult challenges designers, business people and pretty much everyone else face is that we don’t know what a more sustainable world looks like.
Now, I’m not sure I know what a more sustainable world looks like, but I have a pretty good idea what an unsustainable world looks like. I just saw it in the new Toys “R” Us holiday season commercial, “Make all their wishes come true.”
According to Toys “R” Us, the story is how the company “surprises some lucky kids by letting them pick any toy in the store. Toys “R” Us is making wishes come true this holiday season.”
The company is somewhat modest – the storyline is a bit more creative. We see children on a bus on what they believe is a school field trip to a forest. Their “guide” is trying to teach them the names of some trees, but the children seem bored and some even fall asleep. Then he explains (while taking off his park ranger shirt and showing his Toys “R” Us shirt) that “I’m a big fan of trees, but we’re not going to the forest today. We’re going to Toys “R” Us, guys. You can choose any toy that you want.” And the children go wild, screaming, smiling and generally looking like they won the lottery. Now, you don’t need to be Don Draper to guess how this ad goes on.