I was looking forward to interviewing leading sustainability expert Wayne Visser for our Expert Interview podcast. The plan was to talk face-to-face but we ended up speaking via Skype instead. I’d like to say I chose technology over transport to reduce my carbon footprint, but actually the decision was more about timing.
This got me thinking about sustainability and how it isn't the buzzword it once was. Back in the 90s, every corporate social responsibility program and outreach project featured the "S" word. Now, not so much. Did people just get bored with it? Or do we think we've changed our habits enough to check that box and move on? After all, we print double-sided now, right?
According to Visser, such complacency marks the road to disaster, both for the environment and for business. For him, sustainability matters as much now as it ever has – perhaps even more. And he's well qualified to have an opinion. Visser has worked in sustainability since it was a fresh new concept. He's taught in leading universities around the world, is the author of 23 books on related matters, and is frequently named as one of the top global influencers on this topic.
His new book, "Sustainable Frontiers: Unlocking Change through Business, Leadership and Innovation," is an informative exploration of sustainability's role in the 21st century and it's a visionary blueprint for action. For, according to Visser, act we must.
"It's important because, if we don't get it right, things start to collapse," he says. "Ecosystems on which we depend start to collapse, societies start to collapse, communities start to disintegrate. If you look at the range of issues we're tackling under the broad banner of sustainability, they are the things that define what it means to have a good quality of life. So that's why it's important: we want life to be better for all of us."
For businesses to make a difference, they must consider "the four DNA elements of sustainability."
He explains: "[Sustainability] has to be about value creation, which is an economic element. It has to be about good governance, which is about institutional effectiveness, ethics and leadership. It has to be about societal contribution, which is about stakeholder orientation. And it has to be about environmental integrity. And those four DNA principles run through all of the definitions of all the different concepts, and so long as companies are tackling those, I think they're doing sustainability."
Visser is equally aware of the barriers that prevent companies and individuals from fully embracing a greener way.
"One of the biggest [barriers] is that people are not actually believing that we have a problem," he reflects. "The dissatisfaction with the status quo is not very high. If I'm living a fairly comfortable life… and I see a bit of poverty in the world on the news but it's not affecting me. So there isn't that energy for change and I think that's one of the issues.
"The second could be the vision. Have we articulated a sustainable future in such a way that people are thinking, 'Wow, that would be a fantastic place to be! I want to be part of creating that!'? I don't think we've done that. I think we've talked so much about the doom and gloom that people are not really interested in the vision of a sustainable future."
So what's the answer? Visser's new book offers several ways to "unlock sustainable change," ranging from transformational leadership and enterprise reform to technology innovation.
One interesting idea is linking pay with success in achieving sustainability goals. Buying commitment, in other words. In Visser's view, it's as good an incentive as any.
"If you look at a company like Intel, for example, in 2008 they started linking sustainability outcomes to their compensation schemes for their employees and it's worked," he reports. "By 2012 they'd already cut their greenhouse gas, their carbon emissions, by a third.
"In fact a report by the NGO Ceres finds that today, among large companies, roughly a quarter of them are already linking their sustainability impacts to compensation schemes, and that's up from 15 percent in 2012. It's growing fairly rapidly. So we have seen it and it does work."
For Visser, this idea is part of a bigger set of changes that need to take place. In this audio clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Visser shares his top three tips for managers who want to create a more sustainable place to work.
Overcoming complacency isn't easy, especially when a threat seems vague and far away. But if experts like Visser are to be believed, when it comes to sustainability, it's do or die. How sustainable is your team or company, in terms of Visser's four elements of value creation, good governance, ethics and leadership? Do you think you could, or should, be doing more? Join the discussion below!
"Get yourself a notebook. Every day, write down three problems that you observe. This can be the place where you drive and foment your own change."
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