Steve McCoy Thompson, Director of Operations, BSR
This blog is part two of a two-part discussion. The first is available here.
How can sustainability play a meaningful role in a business world that caters to a rather base goal: to "deliver what people want?" In short, by seeing the reality as an opportunity. Here, we continue with the second half of this deceptively simple equation: understanding what people want and then delivering it to them.
One rule that economists have figured out is the principle of rising expectations: Once people have something, say the internet, they typically and rather quickly want more, such as access on their phone or on a plane. Or as Pete Townsend of The Who exclaims in "Magic Bus": "I want it, I want it, I want it!"
Sustainability planners have an opportunity here as well. In China, for example, a rising middle class increasingly wants healthy food and air and is willing to pay for it. In the U.S., the success of Whole Foods and Patagonia demonstrate the strength of the demands of "sustainable" consumers. At its root, want is fundamentally a term of value. In other words, how much do people want anything, and how much are they willing to pay to get it—from that nail at the corner store to a night out on the town. To the extent CSOs can demonstrate that people legitimately want a car that goes further without refueling, or food that is healthy, or technology that benefits the community, then they have integrated sustainable principles into the core business model.
Our last piece in the chain represents the "how"—from organizational structure and workflow to the lifecycle of product delivery, including supply chain, transport, sales, and reuse where possible. Here, sustainable principles have tremendous opportunities for impact—from improved factory labor practices that raise staff morale, retention, and productivity to increased fuel efficiency in freight transport.
To the extent that sustainability helps to connect production with people, and services with consumers, it also serves as a lever that can transform the short-term consumer model to a longer-term relationship model, where businesses foster loyalty to employees and the general public. Yet at the organizational level, sustainable business is often on the outside looking in. Sustainability functions are often relegated to the public affairs department or are confined to EHS compliance and reporting roles. While both functions are important, such placement is self-limiting. It prevents "sustainability" from fulfilling its natural role in business resource planning, corporate branding, and the re-building of employee and consumer loyalty that is critical to long term business success.
In sum, speaking simply helps to ensure we are talking about the same things, which is not always easy when a green-heart speaks to an accountant. To the extent that CEOs, CFOs, and CSOs can align on the best way to deliver what people want, we will be able to integrate sustainable business practices with long term business success. The key is to position each—from program planning to product delivery—in a way to achieve that success.