The Values of a Sustainable Business: Exclusive Interview with SustainAbility’s Mark Lee

I’ve often heard the advice to “leave it better than you found it.” While most people apply this wisdom to the apartment they are renting or the home of a friend they are visiting, this phase is not applied enough to the one place every single one of us shares: planet Earth.

As a species, humankind has done a number on this relatively tiny hunk of rock that’s hurling through space at a thousand miles an hour. Luckily, many businesses large and small have discovered the benefits of becoming sustainable, and it’s not only helping the planet: it’s helping their bottom line.

The triple bottom line, to be specific. Also known as the “three pillars of sustainability”, the social, environmental, and financial parts of this accounting framework are the goals each sustainably-minded company works toward.

Mark Lee-5

And while very few companies can claim they are 100 percent sustainable, but many in the U.S. have progressive environmental and human right policies in place.

“Out of the top 12 most sustainable companies in the world, six are from the U.S.—a decade ago, European companies dominated the list,” said Mark Lee, executive director of think-tank SustainAbility.

“It hasn’t been an easy journey for many of these companies, but U.S. performance in sustainability is now accelerating, and businesses are improving their performances to get to a level that many other countries have already reached.”

SustainAbility “exists to make the transformation to a sustainable economy faster”. It helps companies work on sustainability goals in many different ways by forecasting and predicting potential trends and revenues influenced by sustainability moves a company makes, as well as by helping companies formulate their sustainability strategies and performance in the space.

The reality of achieving sustainable operations lies largely with business leaders of today and tomorrow, who can shape each business’s values in a way that not only supports sustainability, but actively applies to all of its decisions and strategies.

U.S. Companies Doing Sustainable Right –

Several U.S. companies are nothing short of world-class when it comes to their sustainability efforts. Lee was able to cite a half a dozen off the top of his head, even some that didn’t appear in his company’s recent sustainability report.

Take, for instance, Nike. As a company with the goal to engineer and produce the world’s best running shoe, Nike has developed a shoe with an all new look, feel, and most importantly, a new, smaller footprint. The Nike Flyknit is 19 percent lighter than its predecessor—the Nike Zoom Streak 3—and is the closest to the sock-feel many runners are looking for in regards to fit.

The one-piece upper however, is where the engineering shines. It doesn’t use multiple materials or cuts that traditional sports footwear does. This eliminates the need for more fabric and thread, and reduces waste. And when you’re producing millions of shoes every year, an inch of thread saved on one shoe really adds up.

But Nike isn’t the only company getting it right. Starbucks’ Global Responsibility Report details how the global coffee company is invested not just in the product, but the coffee farmers and their communities, as well as its employees and the young, upcoming workforce in America. GE’s Ecomagination campaign has five clear goals for sustainability, including providing technology to other companies to help them meet their sustainability goals. This, of course, comes on top of the $15 billion the company has invested in clean research and development, the $200 billion generated in Ecomagination solutions, a 31 percent reduction of GHG emissions from operations in the last ten years, and a 42 percent reduction of water use from operations in the last eight years.

Mark Lee-6

Lee was most excited about one of Walmart’s most recent additions to their sustainability business model. The company released an all-new online market called the ‘Walmart Sustainability Leaders Shop’ to make it easier for consumer to find products made by companies that have scored best in class in its Sustainability Index. Although it just launched this spring, Walmart has been working on compiling this list for years with The Sustainability Consortium, an independent, nonprofit organization that collaborates with more than 100 product manufacturers, nonprofits, and academic researchers to create science-based measurement tools.

“It has quickly become one of the world’s largest sources of sustainability goods anywhere,” Lee said. “They are taking data from this consortium and applying it in a custom manner, giving a ‘badge’ to suppliers and manufacturers who are operating in a sustainable manner so customers can identify which companies are best in class when it comes to sustainability.”

But Walmart, Starbucks, GE, and every other environmentally-minded company wouldn’t be able to hit these impressive goals without a strong leadership building the sustainability foundation.

Keys to Successful Leadership in Sustainable Business

SustainAbility’s Changing Tack, the final product of its 2012-2013 Regeneration Roadmap Project, wanted “to assess progress on sustainable development, to examine the evolution of the role of business in delivering this agenda to date, and to consider what and how might be done, particularly by the private sector, to accelerate and scale progress in the urgent manner required.”

Much of the report focuses on the key corporate sustainability leadership characteristics, six traits leaders and their businesses should have to be successful in the sustainable business landscape.

“The need for a report like this came about from the changes between sustainability issues and business risks in the last decade. Ten years ago, the top sustainability issues were completely unique from the top business risks. Today however, they almost all overlap.”

These six characteristics—vision, goals, offer, brand, transparency, and advocacy—detailed in the table opposite, give a company laser focus towards evaluating its commitment to true sustainability through business. Lee highlighted the first three as absolutes in developing a business on a sustainability foundation, and suggested that any business model, strategy, or plan always contain a vision, goals, and offer based on sustainability.

Challenges to Sustainable Business

As with any business, strategy, or plan, there are challenges to becoming and maintaining a sustainable business. Unsustainable short-term goals, a disconnect from shareholder expectations and actual, accomplishable tasks, and comfort within traditional, older management and leadership styles can be threats to becoming a sustainable business.

But anyone who knows anything about business knows there are always going to be challenges. Lee has forged forward in his career keeping two very simple—but poignant—pieces of advice in mind: be honest, and be humble.

“In this business, your personal values absolutely have to align with what you’re doing at work. If you bring those values to work with you, it becomes very easy to be honest in your business.

“The problems we are trying to solve are complex, systemic problems. Sometimes you aren’t the right person to lead from the front, sometimes you have to be part of the ranks. Humbling yourself, knowing that there are other people who should take a project over, can be the different between a good leader and a great leader.”