I don't know about you, but I happen to like this place... Earth. Sadly, time and time again we're introduced to those who hold opposing views, or worse, are apathetic in regards to the subject of the ecological safety of this planet and the direct impact of mankind's hard-hitting footprint. And as much as we little guys desire to take action, it looks to be the organizations of the world who act as the "key players" in making sure the sustainability of it goes one way or the other -- depending on their bottom line, at times.
Certainly, the long-term desire for any organization is to be maintainable at all costs... to stay in business. Amid high times, low times and even steady times, a longstanding business proves to be a strong business. However, in terms of organizational survival, sustainability entails much more than sticking around for the long-haul.
In reading a new book by former CEO of Project Management Institute (PMI) Gregory Balestrero and PMP / Strategy Consultant Nathalie Udo (both of whom sit as Strategic Advisors for International Institute for Learning), titled Organizational Survival: Profitable Strategies for a Sustainable Future, I've come to learn it is the environmentally-conscious, socially-responsible businesses who stand the test of time -- yes, there are such corporations. Because of them, something once seen as a petty use for company funds -- practicing sustainability --now proves to be one of the most important and ethically-sound business practices around.
To further my knowledge, I decided to catch up with Greg and Nathalie to discuss the benefits of this practice and the importance of saving our planet through sustainable business practices.
Kyle Dowling: What was the inspiration for this book?
Greg Balestrero: The subject goes back to my roots. I spent the first 10 years of my career working as a project and program manager in areas related to energy conservation. In 2006, when I was the CEO of PMI, I was traveling quite a bit and noticed that governments were really lacking in making significant efforts related to the eradication of poverty and things that would help the environment.
After some time, I came to the conclusion that government was the key enforcer and policemen in all of this by setting regulations, and those regulations come when the problem is typically front and center. However, the key players were those supplying this growing population with goods and services... the companies.
Nathalie Udo: The environment and nature have always been an interest of mine. When I started scuba diving and seeing a large part of the world I saw the impact of what mankind has done. Eventually, I decided to take action. It was a mix of my experiences overseas and at PMI that brought me here. When Greg mentioned he wanted to write a book about sustainability I immediately jumped.
KD: Are the majority of corporations focused on long-term value and sustainability?
NU: I'd say no. One of the things we found is that sustainability is driven by the leader. Either the core company values have been based on sustainability from day one or a strong leader will need to drive the transformation of their company to sustainability. It's very dependent on the top-down vision.
GB: These are very rough numbers, but about 330 million businesses are registered in the world, and those focusing significantly on sustainability are well under 100,000. That gap is truly immense.
KD: For those who don't, what reasons do they give?
GB: Mainly: If I invest in environmental sustainability and social responsibility, it's going to cost too much and rob me of other investments that could keep the company afloat. Others believe since it's not required, why do it? If all companies looked at the year 2050 and the conditions that will exist they will see a series of risks related to social, environmental and ethical responsibilities. If they don't mitigate those risks and become a better corporate citizen, they will go out of business.
NU: Also, if you are a public company, the goal is that you provide a return on investment to your shareholders. In the U.S., there have been lawsuits from shareholders saying, You're investing in sustainability. I don't see how that makes a profit, which means your business practices are flawed. That isn't helping.
KD: You mention that, according to some CEOs, investing in sustainability comes at the expense of the bottom line results. How can you change their view?
GB: There's a few ways. The first is very practical: Apply the concept of "zero waste" across the board from energy to raw materials. Elimination of waste contributes directly to the bottom line.
A second, slightly less tangible but important way, is how investors relate to companies that are investing in sustainability. There has been very significant changes in the way investors look at sustainable companies, which over the last five to 10 years have outperformed "non-sustainable companies." Things such as the way in which employees are treated, how companies address and invest in solving the problems of local communities, and how they perform ethically and environmentally, are now affecting decisions; they weren't in the past. That's only going to increase.
KD: Social media seems to have forever changed business. What impact, if any, has it had in regards to sustainability?
NU: Social media has had a very significant impact. Business actions are more public, consumers are now more aware and people seem more educated because of all the information shared in social media, whether that information is right or wrong. Sometimes that's the problem -- the information is not always factual.
Overall, I think having that widespread information is helping companies become more transparent. Information can now go around the world in a very short timeframe. The consumer is holding the company to act ethically.
KD: It seems more difficult for corporations to keep skeletons in their closet.
GB: Most definitely! Information is hard to hide; it's also difficult to separate fact from fiction because social media makes everyone an authority. That's a real problem with companies because they need to learn to be engaged in social media and not just issue a press release every one or two months. They must be vigilant and communicate frequently with their many stakeholders. Social media is a tool to talk to their stakeholders, not just the people who buy their products.
KD: You say by practicing sustainability organizations will improve the condition and welfare of the planet and society. How so?
GB: Let's take one example surrounding greenhouse gas emissions, specifically CO2. Recent evidence has shown the direct relationship between the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warming of the planet, and man's ability to produce CO2. When you're heating up a body of water the size of our oceans one or two degrees Celsius, water temperature rises and water levels increase dramatically. At the current rate of planetary warming, it is anticipated that the oceans will rise globally one meter by the end of the century. This poses a direct threat to the communities near the oceans and seas, and in turn to the global economy. This one example, and many like it, demonstrates the relationship between man's impact on the world and the threat to its prosperity.
NU: Companies that try to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and invest in sequestrations have an opportunity to have a very positive impact on the planet, and their own image and brand. And when they decide to be more sustainable in their supply chain that will certainly drive a more sustainable planet in the end.
KD: There's a line in the book I was very struck by. Organizations are "custodians of the public trust." Can you explain that?
GB: There's a certain amount of trust a consumer places on a manufacturer to do the right thing, which translates to a direct responsibility to the general public. We have an expectation that things are going to be taken care of by the company. When you open a bottle of Tylenol you assume it's not filled with poison; when you get in a Toyota you assume it's going to stop when it's supposed to. That's the latent trust that we give to companies to be the custodian of that trust. I don't know how planes are put together or how Tylenol is manufactured but I believe somebody does and that they'll take care of me.
KD: What is the most valuable advice you could give people within an organization that could lead to a viable and ecological future?
NU: Make them aware they do have the power to change things. I think no matter the position you have within an organization, we always assume something is out of our control, but you can always suggest changes if you back them up with long-term numbers. Making people aware they can do things and can start a change is very important. You can't do it alone but one person can start it, and that person doesn't need to be at the top of the corporation. It won't be easy but it is in our global best interest to figure it out.
To learn more about Organizational Sustainability, visit the site.
To hear Greg and Nathalie speak about Sustainability, register for "International Project Management Day 2013" before November 7.
For more by Kyle Dowling, visit his site.