Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Bill Roth headshot

Sustainability Professionals Need to Be Weird to Grow Revenues

Words by Bill Roth

On this Earth Day, I want to recognize and challenge the dedicated community of sustainability professionals. What these talented people have achieved over the last 10 years is historic. From Apple to Walmart, from San Diego to New York, sustainability has become a core best practice of business and community success. My economic research points to the achievement of a multi-trillion dollar global annual revenue economy that is growing profits, reducing environmental impacts and creating jobs.

With success comes some frustration within the sustainability professional community. The central theme of this frustration is often over the scale or intensity of CEO engagement. It is not that sustainability professionals feel their CEO is unsupportive or unaware of their efforts or the value of sustainability. Rather, the issue is how to get the degree of CEO support that would make sustainability the foundation of their company's strategies and activities.

Sustainability professional challenge

One reason for frustration over CEO access and empowerment is that CEOs are strategic while much of the success achieved by sustainability professionals is often tactical. CEOs are paid the big bucks to make the crucial decisions that determine their company's market positioning against competitors. Proposing strategic, revenue-growing opportunities is the engagement path to inside the office of the CEO.

Of course, making a strategic revenue-growing business case is easier said than done. Designing and executing this type of business case requires creative abilities to conduct analysis and craft strategies that are "outside the box." Getting creative is the next maturation step in sustainability leadership and for winning enhanced CEO commitment.

Winning customers by being weird

The creative path for winning customers is to act weird. For example, being “weird,” or outside the product design norm, defines Apple and its success. It no longer defines Nokia.

In terms of pioneering a technology, Tesla is so weird that its stock is selling for over $200 per share with a total market capitalization that is almost half of the Ford Motor Co., even though Tesla is only delivering about 10,000 electric cars per month. Elon Musk’s other technology weirdness is solar. SolarCity, of which Musk sits as board chairman, threatens to disrupt the $300 billion annual revenue utility industry by offering consumers guaranteed lower electricity bills.

Walmart is attempting to be very weird. The company has made sustainability a foundational business best practice for achieving everyday low prices. The company is attempting to win price-conscious customers by offering products that “cost less, mean more.”

Patagonia is so weird that it runs ads asking customers not to buy its products. This marketing genius has won the company intensely loyal millennial-generation customers. Chipotle does weird animated movies with music by country western singers that have garnered millions of YouTube views -- and loyal customers that have propelled the company's stock prices to a level where Chipotle is now the most valued restaurant chain in America.

Sustainability professionals need to act weird

Winning the customer is the focal point that drives the sustainability weirdness of companies like Apple, Tesla, Patagonia, Chipotle and Walmart. Sustainable best practices are now proven paths for lowering costs to enable competitive prices that win customers. Sustainable best practices are proven to win millennial generation customers who select what they buy and who they buy from based on the authenticity and transparency of the company and its product. Acting weird to win customers has emerged as the ultimate business opportunity for sustainability.

However, it appears that more and more sustainability professionals have boxed themselves into a tactical corner. Sustainability professionals have achieved quantum leaps in their ability to measure, monitor, reduce and report environmental footprints. They are increasingly successful in selling sustainable best practices to CFOs on cost-savings economics. However, CEOs can often view the practice of sustainability as an engineering and accounting staff function that's focused on risks and costs, rather than the CEO's strategic focus on growing revenues. What can reenforce this CEO perspective are corporate responsibility and sustainability reports that read like all the other corporate staff reports: the ones that are turned into slide presentations and delivered at staff meetings rarely attended by the CEO.

A sustainability mission statement that will engage CEOs

Apple, Tesla, Solar City, Chipotle, Patagonia and the businesses I work with are winning customers and growing revenues by offering great product designs -- sold at a competitive price -- that are solutions to customers' “in me, on me and around” issues. That should be the mission statement of every sustainability professional. Delivering on that mission will definitely get the positive attention of the CEO. It will also catapult sustainability to its true role within a business as a strategic driver for winning customers and growing revenues.

Image credit: Book cover, "The Secret Green Sauce"

Bill Roth headshotBill Roth

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

Read more stories by Bill Roth

More stories from Leadership & Transparency