As we turn our sights toward our upcoming sustainability conference in Atlanta, we sat down this week with keynote speaker Samantha Putt del Pino, Co-Director of Business Engagement in Climate and Technology at the World Resources Institute, to discuss her perspective on where sustainable business is heading.
GT: How would you describe the state of corporate sustainability, worldwide?
SPP: It’s hard to think about global business homogeneously. There is a wide range of environmental performance, even among those companies that ascribe to sustainability principles. On one hand, sustainability isn’t nearly as engrained into core business practice as we would like it to be. Some companies have not set themselves a very high bar for what it means to be sustainable. These are the companies that see sustainability as more of a niche issue, something that can help with public relations or to engage select customers.
But on the other hand, I think we are starting to see something interesting among leading companies, and that is the shift from using sustainability as short-term defense to using it for long-term offense. These companies see sustainability as essential to their long-term competitiveness. For example, some companies are aggressively investing in sustainable products and services and are seeing their revenues grow. Many have set revenue targets reflecting expectations of future growth. We also are seeing some companies factor sustainability into their mergers and acquisitions strategy, making decisions that can improve the company’s capacity to fulfill its sustainability objectives over the longer term.
GT: The World Resources Institute (WRI) is working on a new research project focused on the “Next Practices” in sustainability management. Why are best practices no longer the gold standard?
SPP: In today’s fast-changing, competitive landscape, we see an urgent need to innovate beyond best practices. Best practices are still important: Companies have made, and can continue to make, significant improvements in their environmental performance by pursuing best practices. However, companies can do more to understand how big trends, such as climate change or water scarcity create new risks and opportunities, and will shape the markets of tomorrow. Companies that proactively implement smart strategies today can gain an edge, both in terms of preparedness and in terms of accelerating progress, towards a sustainable future.
GT: What are some of the future forward issues U.S. companies should begin learning about (if not planning for) today?
SPP: There are several challenges companies face when looking for the next big sustainability issue. First, there’s no crystal ball. So, how do you anticipate future needs without trying to predict the future? Second, too often the “hot topic” of the day will shift with the political winds. How can you make a case for long-term sustainability issues if your colleagues are scrambling to address issues that come and go on a quarterly basis? And third, issues must be understood in terms very specific to each company. How do you engage your colleagues to understand big changes in the context of your company’s specific strengths and weaknesses?
These are the types of questions we are working to answer with partner companies in WRI’s Next Practice Collaborative. Many partners have told us they want to understand what other sustainability leaders see as issues of rising priority, such as water risk, life-cycle sustainability impacts, or ecosystem degradation. Oftentimes, the issue itself (like climate change) may not be new, but a new, more transformative approach is required.
WRI and its partners are working on a tool kit to help companies sort through the possibilities and connect these opportunities and threats with their core competencies. That can go a long way to making the case for action on issues on the horizon, or for tackling an existing issue with renewed innovation.
GT: Based on your knowledge of how corporate sustainability comes to fruition, what role do you think the individual leader can play in driving progress within an organization?
SPP: The most successful corporate sustainability professionals act as catalysts. They facilitate collaboration and generate excitement inside and outside the organization. They are the ones who can make a really good case to the company’s leadership for investments in bold sustainability strategies. This means making a solid business case and showing how investments create big opportunities or address big risks to the company.