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In 2014, the Network for Business Sustainability assembled the leading Canadian companies committed to business sustainability and asked: What are your greatest challenges? What we learned was both surprising and exciting.

The Network for Business Sustainability is a community of managers and researchers that work together to advance the process by which firms manage their financial, social, and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities – or, in simpler terms: profits, people and planet.

Based at the Ivey Business School, we have assembled the top sustainability companies for the last seven years to brainstorm about the issues that are the top of their minds. We then research the top issues, providing insights into their challenges.

This research-practice initiative has worked so well that we now have affiliates in South Africa and Chile which have adopted the model. It's been exciting to see the conversations change over time in Canada and how they differ across countries.

In early years, Canadian companies have focused on the business case: How can we make money from our sustainability practices? Then they wanted to know what it meant to be fully sustainable and what they had to do differently. These topics still occupy their mind, but the landscape shifted in 2013 and the discussion has become broader and more urgent.

Leading Canadian companies now realize that sustainability cannot be tackled alone. These companies, which have crafted a strong reputation based on their leadership in sustainability, include well-known names such as BASF, BC Hydro, Suncor, TD Bank, Teck Resources, Tembec, and Unilever.

All of them have already seen some of the competitive benefits of being leaders in this sphere. But they collectively feel that they are pushing a rock uphill. Like Sisyphus, each advance toward sustainability is met with the rock rolling back downhill. Whether it be customers who don't value sustainability attributes in products or investors that value short-term profits, they realize that they just can't do it alone.

So, what's different? They know that Canadian business must actively change the conversation. Whereas most business dialogue is around competitive advantage, sustainability requires new ways of thinking and doing. It requires working together to manage natural resources and finding collective – not competitive – solutions to problems.

John Coyne of Unilever says "Setting aside traditional notions of competition will empower firms to collaborate … that are too big to tackle alone. We have to give up some of our traditional, 19th -century ways of thinking about business."

And Canadian businesses are well placed to lead in these non-traditional, non-competitive forms of collaboration that manage our natural resources. For example, COSIA – Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – is a consortium of the 13 largest oil sands companies that are sharing potentially competitive innovations in order to protect natural resources. And, the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement has been signed by 19 forestry companies to protect 73 million hectares of forest.

Carmen Turner of Teck Resources acknowledges that "the level at which broader society trusts business has decreased ... Business must have a collective dialogue with society to rebuild trust." These leading companies recognize that they need not only manage stakeholders, they need to build trust by truly listening to them.

The message that resonated loudest to me as I listened to the corporate sustainability leaders in Canada, Chile and South Africa was that these businesses see their success intimately tied to a healthy, vibrant and sustainable community. They do not believe they can control that vision, but want to engage in conversations that move toward a shared vision.

Sustainability to these leaders is not a constraint. It is seen as an opportunity to build a better future. In fact, they see the failure to be sustainable as the real challenge facing Canadians.


The Challenges

Here are the top challenges that Canadian Businesses face in their goal to achieve sustainability.

  • Collaborating for sustainability
  • Addressing climate change
  • Building stakeholder trust
  • Designing effective sustainability communications
  • Turning sustainability into strategic priority
  • Transitioning to green products and services
  • Respecting free, prior and informed consent

Tima Bansal (@TimaBansal) is a professor at Western University's Ivey Business School, holds the Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability and is the executive director of the Network for Business Sustainability.

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