Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sustainability Trends and Obstacles for Corporate Leaders

The Sustainability revolution is being driven by some truly innovative trends. Astute business leaders see social ills, environmental degradation and the climate crisis as both serious threats and opportunities. A growing number of organizations are adopting forward looking strategies as a competitive necessity. For public facing brands the pressure is even greater.  According to an EDF survey more than 80 percent of business leaders indicated that they believe consumers will increasingly hold companies accountable for their environmental impacts.

A growing number of companies are seeing the value of doing good. As suggested by corporate actions last year there is every reason to believe that corporate engagement in sustainability continues to grow. It is not overstating the case to say there has been a wave of corporate goodness. A wide range of sectors are getting involved including the beer industry led by companies like Aisha and the tech world led by companies like Apple.

Digital innovation

Apple is not the only tech company that is showing leadership. In addition to engaging sustainability in their supply chain, manufacturing and logistics processes, companies like Dell are reducing their energy consumption through virtualization, cloud computing and data center design. By leveraging a more mobile workforce Dell is decreasing the need for offices and business travel thereby further diminishing their footprint. They have also adopted an innovative approach to packaging that includes collecting and recycling plastic waste from the ocean.

Reporting and transparency 

Transparency is a fundamental component of sustainability and companies now have access to powerful tools to help them with disclosure.  With GRI, the future of integrated sustainability reporting looks bright but there are still some hurdles that need to be overcome. One of the most significant has to do with the fear of disclosure.  While companies like to laud their success they are often circumspect about disclosing their failures. However, if we are to unleash the full power of transparency companies must get over their fear of reporting failures.

There is growing interest in sustainability performance as as demonstrated by websites like the one from that publicly reports on corporate environmental disclosures. Disclosure offers reputational benefits for those who are serious about sustainability while it is a risk factor for those who are not.

Power of collaboration

A World Economic Forum report describes climate change as a risk factor and the same report argues that businesses benefit from engaging in "collaborative multistakeholder action".  The Global Risks report is but one of many publications that highlight the immense potential of partnerships and collaboration.

As cited by Forbes, the EDF poll demonstrated that over three quarters of executives surveyed think that sharing data with outside parties will lead to better business outcomes.

We are seeing promising results from public-private efforts including in the realm of wastewater management. Other examples include Google's partnership with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to create a free global database of power plants. Analyzing this data will help manage air pollution. It can also drive investments in low carbon technologies. Earlier this year EDF announced plans to develop and launch a free open source methane detecting satellite and Starbucks is currently working on an open source project with the Closed Loop Partners to develop recyclable and compostable cups.

Building collaborative partnerships buoys innovation and it is essential to forging a sustainable supply chain.


Blockchains are breaking new ground and may very well prove to be a game-changer in areas like connected supply chains. As a decentralized public ledger blockchains seamlessly interface with disclosure efforts.

Most major Fortune 500 companies including those in the automotive, finance and retail sectors are exploring blockchain technology. Blockchain also holds promise for business operations in the food industry. Walmart, Unilever, and Nestle are all working with IBM to explore blockchain applications in their food supply chains. This will increase both transparency and traceability. It will also increase efficiency and safety while reducing waste.

Late last year De Beers announced investments in a blockchain-based diamond tracking platform to increase supply chain transparency and avoid conflict diamonds.  Although the possible areas where blockchains could be implemented are far too numerous to list, electricity markets may be among the most beneficial applications.


Doing more with less is a central objective of sustainability. According to the EDF study less than a third of executives polled indicated that they have successfully implemented dematerialization technologies in their companies.  As an underutilized innovation dematerialization is ripe for scaling.  This market driven opportunity will provide tremendous benefits to those who can solve the dilemma of decoupling.  In fact the viability of our economic system is dependent on dematerialization and decoupling.

Rapid scaling

While these are positive trends much more needs to be done to scale sustainability. There are many things that corporations are doing including much needed technological innovations. However what we really need is an innovative re-imagining of sustainability.

The Wave of Corporate Goodness
US Corporate Climate Efforts in 2017 Offer Hope for 2018
Business Action on Climate Change
Criticisms of Sustainability Offset by Tangible Results
IKEA goes all the way with Sustainability
10 Reasons Why Patagonia is the World's Most Responsible Company
Amadeus' Sustainability Gains are a Win for Investors
HSBC Taking its Sustainability Commitments to New Heights
Mars' Sustainability Leadership Through Science Based Climate Action
GlaxoSmithKline Doing Well by Doing Good
Sustainability Leadership at BMW (Videos)
Unilever A Sustainable Corporate Giant

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