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"A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." – Mark Twain
Businesses are often blamed for undermining sustainability. They are seen as wasting resources, polluting heavily, and exploiting employees – all in an effort to earn ever-higher profits.
However, within each sector, some corporations are stepping up. They are stewarding natural resources and demonstrating fair labour practices.
The terrain is pockmarked with landmines, as these firms try to balance complex, diverse interests. As well, there is no clear destination that marks sustainability. Oftentimes, these firms feel like they have caught the proverbial cat by its tail. They are learning along the way, making some mistakes, but always improving their practices, while making money.
We have gathered some of their top tips. These companies are members of the Network for Business Sustainability's Leadership Council, which is based at Western University's Ivey Business School in London, Ont. The council's members share best practices with each other, and today, they share some with you.
Tip #1: With multiple stakeholders, collaborate on multiple tracks
"Environmental organizations and the forest industry, including Tembec, saw an opportunity to work collaboratively on conservation outcomes in the boreal forest rather than engage in divisive and protracted communication battles in the marketplace. Regardless of how innovative our proposed solution was, provincial governments and First Nations, as decision makers on the land, also had to observe, see a benefit and engage their own processes to improve the agreement and move ahead together. We learned that for business and NGO collaborations to succeed, other parties must also be afforded the ability to shape and support the outcomes." – Chris McDonell, manager of aboriginal and environmental relations with Tembec.
Tip #2: Two heads are better than one
"There's no question Suncor faces technical challenges developing Alberta's oil sands. As fierce as competition is in our industry, we choose to collaborate with both our competitors and our critics to find solutions. We're all in this together. Any one company's environmental issues are a challenge for the whole industry including Suncor, regardless of our own environmental record. We find better solutions faster by working together, and transparency with external stakeholders helps us speed implementation of these solutions." – Peter MacConnachie, senior sustainability issues management specialist with Suncor.
Tip #3: The business case is not only about money
"Know what different audiences within your company value and [then] adapt your pitch. It's not always directly about a financial bottom line. In retail, customer service is king; and marketing values brand awareness. Human resources departments want to attract and retain great employees. When TD Bank was rolling out our employee environmental awareness program in our U.S. retail bank, we included an element of how our employees could use their increased awareness of the environment as a means of 'starting a customer conversation,' and we measured results through our customer experience index." – Karen Clarke-Whistler, chief environmental officer with TD Bank Group.
Tip #4: Quick fixes may impede sustainable solutions
"Every company has faced challenges that they expend resources on in an effort to fix – but often those quick fixes do not create a platform for long-term success. Confronted with an unacceptable frequency of workplace injuries and deaths, BC Hydro retained experts, conducted numerous studies and implemented various solutions, but we were unable to improve our results as expected. Only when we deliberately paused to look within, equipping a cross-functional employee team to learn, listen and provide recommendations with fresh eyes, were we able to address the tough, underlying questions about culture, leadership and inconsistent practices and move beyond band-aid solutions. In reflection, sometimes only true soul-searching and listening to its own people may help an organization to shift, approach a challenge from a position of knowledge and strength which lays the foundation for sustained and lasting positive change." – Brenda Goehring, manager of regulatory and relationship management, corporate safety, health and environment with BC Hydro.
Tip #5: Build unique partnerships
Each day, diarrheal disease kills more than 1,500 children under the age of five, most from Asia and Africa. A simple, inexpensive treatment of zinc and oral rehydration salts can be all that is needed to treat this illness and save lives. As one of the world's largest producers of zinc, we knew that we could help address this global health challenge, not by producing more zinc, but getting it to the children who need it most. It requires creating unique partnerships such as the Zinc Alliance for Child Health, which we helped form to bring together industry, governments and partners like UNICEF Canada and the Micronutrient Initiative to develop zinc treatment programs to save children's lives. Through this strategic community investment, hundreds of thousands of children around the world are now being connected with life-saving zinc treatments. – Marcia Smith, senior vice-president of sustainability and external affairs with Teck.
Tip #6: Invest in sustainability along the entire product chain
"When BASF first introduced our new technology for compostable plastic, ecovio, we faced the challenge of educating consumers not to separate plastic from food waste. As the technology licensor, however, BASF was not directly involved with manufacturing and distribution of end-use products and therefore had limited contact with consumers. By partnering with sporting and event venues such as Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners baseball stadium, we were able to develop Zerowaste programs which ensured ecovio's impact could be optimized. As a closed-loop system, Safeco was able to stop selling packaging that could not be recycled or composted and eliminated bins for waste going to landfills. Promotions and contests were introduced engaging fans in the project. The results? By 2012, 85 per cent of Safeco Field's waste was diverted to recycling or composting – a vast improvement from a 12 per cent waste diversion rate in 2006." – Carles Navarro, president of BASF Canada.
Tip #7: The hidden advantage of sustainability in your supply chain
"In May of 2013, Tim Hortons launched a new Partnership Blend of coffee, 100 per cent sourced from small holder farmers participating in the Tim Hortons Coffee Partnership. What started as a philanthropic program, focusing on providing technical farming assistance to project farmers and their communities has, after eight years, been able to assure a steady supply of beans that meet our quality standards. We've discovered all kinds of added benefits, from education on how sustainability can be embedded at all levels of the value chain, to the identification of new regional sourcing opportunities." – Tim Faveri, director of sustainability and responsibility with Tim Hortons.
Tackling sustainability challenges may seem as daunting a prospect as carrying a cat by the tail, yet in doing so these business leaders have helped create benefits for business and society they could have discovered in no other way. While their tips may not translate directly for all industries, their successes with creative approaches and unusual partnerships may inspire others to find new ways to address their own sustainability issues.
Tima Bansal (@TimaBansal)is a professor at Western University's Ivey Business School and holds the Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability and is the executive director of the Network for Business Sustainability.