Leading sustainability

Three teen-aged girls are at a shopping mall looking for sunscreen. It’s an impulse purchase, and it has to be an all-natural choice. They think they’ve found what they’re looking for at one store, but on the way to the register one of the girls takes out her phone and swipes it by the barcode of the product they’ve selected. Moments later, as she’s pulling out a credit card at the register, her iPhone announces an incoming email. It’s a short message informing her that the item she is about to purchase contains compounds that are linked to the decimation of coral reefs. Moreover, the plastic container is difficult to recycle. Because her phone has pinpointed her location via GPS, she also learns that another store in the mall carries a “greener” sunscreen that has neither of those two problems. The girls leave the register and make a beeline for the other store.

This scenario is not a pipedream. In fact, the technology needed to make it happen is already in place. Retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are developing sustainability indices; one day soon comparative product ratings will be posted next to price tags. The website GoodGuide.com provides a free iPhone app that rates and compares tens of thousands of products on their environmental, health and social impacts. Because of such technologies, the guiding principle for many companies, increasingly, is caveat venditor: let the seller beware. As many markets become ever more “transparent” to environmentally conscious customers, the pursuit of sustainability will shift from a choice that companies make to a sheer necessity of survival. It will affect the de facto “license” of a business to operate — a license that customers won’t hesitate to revoke.

The Leading Question

Many executives understand how these dynamics will fundamentally alter their businesses, and they understand that sustainability is, ultimately, about the sustainability of their own organizations. But they often stumble in making the transition because of basic misconceptions about what it will take to transform their companies. Many make the mistake of treating sustainability like any other large corporate initiative: It’s actually different in several crucial ways. Or they assume that it will require a steady, constant effort over years. In fact, it entails three distinct phases, each requiring different leadership skills. When implementing a business strategy that commercially incorporates sustainability, managers must first recognize how such efforts are unique, and then understand how best to advance through each major stage of a sustainability initiative.

From “The Change Leadership Sustainablity Demands,” by Chrisopth Lueneburger and Daniel Goleman, MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2010. For the rest of the article, see: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/articles/2010/summer/51412/the-change-leadership-sustainability-demands/

2 thoughts on “Leading sustainability

  1. Getting people to change the way they think is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time!!

    “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

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