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Sustainatopia — Lessons from Industry

The message I heard at the recent Sustainatopia conference in Boston is that corporate champions who want a more sustainable world are frustrated by the realities of our current marketplace. The only champions who seem excited by their role are those whose companies have publicly recognized the business value of sustainability.

So what is the business value of sustainability?

As always, the biggest perceived value is in the ability of these companies to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. While millennials may demand to work for a company that reflects their values, the rest of us will choose the same when offered the choice. In fact, Timberland reported a big morale improvement after putting in place two days of paid volunteer work. They increased the time to a full work week five years ago and have seen nothing but positive results.

The second “low hanging” value is cost reduction.

It’s usually pretty easy for a company to find the low hanging fruit of wasted energy or waste material. The changes they make improve both environmental performance and the bottom line. And, as Amy Hall from Eileen Fisher suggested, low hanging fruit comes back. You may have pruned it back once, but over time, there are more ways to trim from the same branch through new technology or better management practices.

Brand value is another area of business value, and this seems to be a strong incentive for those on either end of the impact spectrum.

Companies like Seventh Generation rely on their sustainability platform to sell their products. Without the platform they would be a small consumer products company trying to compete head to head with the likes of P&G. On the other end of the spectrum, Dow Chemical is leveraging its efforts in sustainability and looking “less bad” to the public eye.

But Dow is one company reaching for the holy grail of the business value of sustainability.

For the second time, Dow has included innovation of products to “advance the well-being of humanity” as part of its ten-year sustainability goals. I believe this is the biggest potential value that sustainability gives to companies, large and small. Using a life cycle or sustainability lens opens up the innovation process resulting in better and more sustainable products and perhaps even more importantly, better and more sustainable business models.  Companies like Zipcar and airbnb have jumped on these new models and made highly successful businesses from them. Established companies will need to follow suit if they wish to endure far into the twenty first century.

If you’re a sustainability champion, can you share your thoughts with us today?


About the Author:  Lise Laurin, CEO and Founder of EarthShift Global — Lise is a pioneer in Sustainability Return on Investment (S-ROI) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). She continues to develop and leverage sustainability consulting services, LCA as well as SROI software and training programs to build organizational capacity in driving large-scale change. Her unique skill set and knowledge base has put her in demand globally by companies, organizations and governments alike.