Adam Werbach’s Strategies for Sustainability

Photo by Andrew Paytner
Photo by Andrew Paytner

When Adam Werbach talks, people listen. And for good reason – his career track has been explosive, from being elected the youngest-ever President of the Sierra Club at age 23 to his more recent work with Walmart attempting to engage all 2 million or their Associates. Currently, he is the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, the sustainability arm of Saatchi & Saatchi.

I listened to him speak today at the 2009 Net Impact Conference where he gave a fascinating set of guidelines and strategies for corporations and anyone interested in sustainability, loosely based on his new book, Strategy for Sustainability.

Adam holds the view that sustainability has not even begun yet (well, maybe just begun) and asserts that if we look back in history, we will call 2007 and 2008 perhaps the beginning of a new relationship forming between large corporations and their customers.

A nice analogy that he gave was one of wildfires. In nature, fires clear the way for new growth. In our current economy, perhaps this is what we are experiencing, clearing the way for a whole new breed of company. Only the strong, or smart, will survive.

Long-term profitability used to be only about the financial. For a company to be profitable in the long run today, they must be in tune with their customers like never before. Consumers demand much more transparency and authenticity of companies then ever before.

One mistake many companies make is that they try to fix problems reactively, rather than proactively. They also don’t always listen, really listen, to their customers (and critics). Companies that are willing to engage in a healthy dialogue with their customers are going to strengthen their brands over companies that do not. An important point is this: consumers thank companies for their honesty. They might not care right this instant, but eventually it will pay off, in greater mutual respect, and brand loyalty.

Engaging employees is another crucial aspect of an organization’s sustainability strategy, and sometimes overlooked. Employees also want to work for a company that makes them feel good rather than merely getting a paycheck and watching their bosses get richer.

Oh yeah, and it’s super important that the CEO be a leader, committed long-term to sustainability.

Companies are starting to create North Star Goals, which are very ambitious objectives that a company aspires to that may be very difficult or impossible to achieve and are aimed at solving a major global human challenge. According to Adam, these goals should be:

  1. actionable by every employee,
  2. core to the business,
  3. solve a global human challenge,
  4. achievable in 10-15 years,
  5. inspirational.

This is so simply put, yet it feels right, doesn’t it? I know I want that. To give you an example, Walmart’s North Star Goals are:

  1. to have 100% renewable energy powering their stores,
  2. to have only sustainable products in their stores,
  3. to be zero waste.

Toyota’s are: to have cars that never crash and that clear the air as they drive. Ambitious and far-fetched? Definitely inspirational.

All of this really boils down to is basic human psychology and the science behind human happiness, which suggests that all humans really need to be happy is: close relationships, experiencing flow and being of service to others. Albert Bandura is an interesting psychologist that talks about some of these social behaviors.

“Change begets change,” Adam said in conclusion. So, choose the battles that are worth fighting and set your expectations high, but also realize that sometimes change comes from those combined small steps that we take and a healthy dose of optimism.

Check out Adam’s blog,


You can follow more of my thoughts on Twitter at

Matthew Savage is the founder of Savage Sustainability, a sustainability and marketing strategy consultancy that helps companies grow and innovate, while achieving sustainability targets. He has 10 years of demonstrated experience in implementing complex solutions for large corporations and start-ups. You can follow more of his thoughts at or follow him on

4 responses

Leave a Reply