How can we make sustainability mainstream?

As long as sustainability is seen as a ‘project’ or an ‘initiative’, it will always be disconnected from the mainstream thinking in an organisation. It should not be the responsibility of a specific team or individual. We don’t make thinking about markets, products and services, costs, customer needs, or technologies the responsibility of a separate function – at least in the more successful innovative companies we don’t. We must make sustainability thinking just a natural part of the way we do business.

So how can we bring sustainability into the mainstream? Lots of people are comfortable, at least in principle, with the idea of the Triple Bottom Line; the need to balance the needs of People, Planet and Profit in their decision making. But this does not tell you what industry sectors, markets or technologies you should be thinking about. Where are the challenges for innovation? Which options have a viable future and which do not? You can understand the threat or opportunity that sustainability issues represent for your business, and still be left asking “but what do we do now?”

Business needs tools that allow them to go from a broad acceptance that sustainability must be an important part of their planning to a realistic action plan. And that needs a way of debating what sustainability actually means in different situations.

Over the last 18 months we have been working with Forum for the Future to develop a model of a future sustainable economy. This will help us to add a sustainability lens to go alongside the market, capability and timeliness analysis we already use to think about investment opportunities. We are not setting out to create a totally new model, but to take the areas of common agreement in existing models so that our approach would be recognised and understood as widely as possible.

So the first thing we did was to look for the overlaps in about 40 existing models of a sustainable economy. It was encouraging to see that, although people use different words, there is a massive amount of consensus about what makes an economy sustainable. Combining all this existing work together we came up with a relatively simple way for people to think about sustainability in business

Sustainablity

The overall sustainability objective is 9.5bn people living well with the resources of a single planet. Economic activities need to support that outcome, because that is where sustainable future profits will come from. But we don’t have complete freedom to innovate and act. There are practical environmental boundaries that limit what we can do, and social and political boundaries that need to be respected. Getting close to or crossing these boundaries significantly increases the risk of business failure.

Our work with Forum for the Future identified 12 environmental boundaries and 10 social and political boundaries. From limits on global warming and water use to understanding the interdependence of living systems and the need for a strong civil society. Thinking about this broad set of issues helps us to tackle the question “is the market we are targeting sustainable in the long run, and are we approaching it with solutions that are likely to be sustainable?”

The first step in integrating these ideas into our programmes was to create a set of cards, one for each of the 22 boundary issues. Each card gives an explanation of the issue, background information about its importance, and some ideas about avoiding risks and generating opportunities. We will use the cards to develop our strategies and programmes. First we identify which boundary issues are most relevant to the topic under discussion. Then debate the implications of the issue for the topic, how that could lead to commercial opportunities, and finally the actions we will take.

At Innovate 11 we introduced this model and the cards. Over the next few months we will be testing it out on real problems, both internally, and with some external companies and academic experts. After any necessary tweaking we will be making all of the model, the cards and the background information available to anyone who is looking for a way to incorporate sustainability thinking in their activities.

So watch this space.

 

Last updated on Thursday 23 February 2012 at 16:22

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