Ian Yolles is chief sustainability officer of Recyclebank, which rewards individuals for everyday “green actions.”
What does the notion of redefining leadership for sustainability mean to you?
I think it all starts with being able to persuasively articulate the case for change. In the case of consumer-facing brands, markets and supply chains are becoming increasing transparent to consumers—witness GoodGuide. The result is that the pursuit of sustainability will no longer be a choice but a survival necessity. Transparency will affect the license that companies have to operate—a license that consumers can revoke at a moment’s notice. In this emergent reality, sustainability is not just another corporate initiative, and therefore it requires distinct leadership skills. It starts with the ability to lay out a clear and compelling case for change, including the articulation of a compelling vision that aligns the sustainability imperative with commercial value—the ability to build meaningful collaboration internally and to exert influence with relevant stakeholders.
In your opinion, what are the most significant sustainable business trends of the last decade?
Two come to mind. The first is the growing shift from the view that sustainability is a constraint to the realization that it is a lens through which to innovate in a manner that strengthens the business. Some good examples of this transition include Unilever’s recent introduction of its Sustainable Living Plan, GE’s Ecomagination platform, and Nike’s Sustainable Business + Innovation statement, which reads: “Sustainable business and innovation represent [an] opportunity to deliver business returns and drive growth, deepen consumer and community connections, while creating positive social and environmental commitment.”
The second significant trend is the increased transparency that the digital world continues to enable. Now every act, every product, and every service has a story. It’s no longer just about price and performance. From a design perspective, we’re beginning to grapple with the concept of a product’s full lifecycle. But we also need to focus on the full “life story” of the product, and the ability to share that story effectively. Patagonia demonstrates leadership on this front with the Footprint Chronicles.
When it comes to promising opportunities for sustainable business now and in the next five years, where are you placing your bets?
The clear opportunity is one of speed and scale. We’re working to realize a more sustainable future, but we need to do it faster and bigger. The stakes are exceedingly high, and we don’t have the luxury of time. At Recyclebank, from a consumer perspective, we’re thinking about the intersection between sustainability, clean technology, and the social nature of the digital world. Think how quickly traditional digital businesses—like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—have scaled. From a sustainability perspective, we need to create that sort of trajectory of scale if we’re going to have a meaningful impact. In that sense, we’re focused on building consumer engagement online to affect real-world, off-line actions at a scale that makes a difference.