Sustainability Is a Growth Strategy – Create a Culture that Embraces Change to Tackle Sustainability on Your Own Terms

Sustainability is a hot topic right now and rightly so. People are increasingly aware of the impact they have on the planet and are looking to business and government to help them figure out what to do. Yet all too often, companies avoid taking action for fear that scarce resources will be diverted or initial efforts deemed inadequate by consumers or the public. It doesn’t have to be this way. Sustainability can be a driver of growth and positive cultural change when approached as an opportunity instead of an obligation. The path is simple: put people first, learn to enjoy letting go, and create a culture that embraces change.

Put People First
Widespread acceptance of global warming and growing awareness of the links between environmental health and personal wellness are causing big changes in consumers’ wants and needs -“ the mainstreaming of organic food and green cleaning products are but two recent examples. Even in the business-to-business space, renewable energy, solar panels, cogeneration equipment and recycled packaging are increasingly in demand as corporate sustainability strategies take hold. Changing values and priorities yield big opportunities for those who can spot them first. The trick lies in getting beneath the surface to understand how sustainability concerns are impacting your customers. Now is the time to get out into the world, meet people where they work and live, and find the emerging needs. Clorox discovered that most people wanted environmental improvements to begin at home, and capitalized on interest in sustainable alternatives to bottled water to successfully rebrand its Brita water filtration business, achieving double digit growth following five years of stagnation. What are your hidden opportunities?

Enjoy Letting Go
The best part of using sustainability to get closer with customers can be finding out what they don’t value. Hewlett-Packard has realized major cost savings and waste reduction by eliminating unnecessary packaging from its printers and computers. Since embarking on its Ecomagination campaign, GE has exited no-longer-valued businesses like plastics while transforming its traditional industrial businesses into green leaders -“ including electric-diesel hybrid trains. The car-sharing service ZipCar has grown into a very successful business with 300,000 members recognizing that auto ownership is not the status symbol it used to be. Many people want to drive cars when they need them and not deal with the hassle otherwise. People-focused sustainability efforts can transform the pain of letting go that most companies try to avoid into the excitement of staying relevant to customers, leading categories in new directions and even saving money. Many businesses discover too late that they should have killed their sacred cows. A focus on sustainability can help you realize when that time has arrived.

Create a Culture That Embraces Change
Putting people first and learning to let go frees up resources that can be used to pursue new products, services and even lines of businesses. Ultimately, the goal is to create a virtuous cycle that continually eliminates offerings that no longer add value and repurposes existing skills, assets, and capabilities to pursue new opportunities. Nike began its sustainability initiative by focusing on using less harmful materials -“ in time the organization has begun to completely rethink how shoes are made. Today, you can even buy a great basketball shoe made entirely from scraps of other models. Wal-Mart now actively searches for companies that can make its waste into new products that can be sold in its stores. Since anything it throws away has already been paid for, it only makes sense to view waste as a resource. This kind of clever problem solving keeps people in a company energized, creative, and engaged, all of which are essential for long-term success.

Get on the Path to Sustainable Growth
As sustainability becomes an increasingly critical mandate for business, many companies worry that it means everything needs to change. And while that’s true, it doesn’t have to be a problem. Embracing sustainability as a core growth strategy can make the larger task of reinvention a more natural process, one that harnesses the energy of people inside the organization and beyond to deliver continued success.

Lara Lee is a principal of Jump Associates, a growth strategy firm based in San Mateo, Calif. Recognized by BusinessWeek as a ‘Master of Innovation,’ Lara helps corporate leaders to build new businesses, define new products and services, and create cultures that support sustainable growth. She leads Jump’s offerings and research for sustainability initiatives and may be contacted at [email protected]