Written By: Julia Abell
I recently traveled to Portland, Oregon, to attend the national Net Impact conference. Though I was anxious about making a cross-country trip while on crutches after knee surgery, in the end I was glad I went.
With the economy doing as poorly as it is, there are many people who think businesses cannot afford to be socially and environmentally responsible. They view sustainability as peripheral to a company’s core business and as something that can be cut when times are tough. It was, therefore, refreshing to hear from business leaders who do not see having values and value creation as two different things. Though the Net Impact conference can be more “preaching to the choir” than digging deep on issues of sustainability, sometimes it is nice to get together with likeminded people and see how they are putting ideals into action. Specifically, I saw three themes carried throughout the conference—the need for collaboration, communication, and innovation.
From the opening keynote, the need for cooperation and coordination in sustainability efforts was apparent. In the words of Lord Michael Hastings, Global Head of Citizenship and Diversity for KPMG, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, work with others.” Later speakers and panelists picked up the thread and elaborated on the difficulties and rewards of working together, specifically when developing product indices and scorecards. When talking about supply chain management, Dave Wallace of xpedx said, “In scorecarding, the biggest mistake you can make is to do it yourself.” Rahul Raj of Walmart.com agreed that a lack of standardization and coordination can lead to “scorecard fatigue” and increased inefficiencies, which is the opposite of the original goal of developing scorecards.
Particularly for consumer-facing industries, the challenge is not only becoming more sustainable, but doing so in a way that changes customer behavior. And, as Sally Jewel, CEO of REI, said “Customers are only going to care if they know.” Many other companies faced the same issue of educating consumers and communicating the value of sustainability efforts. For example, Ben Packard, VP of Global Responsibility for Starbucks, questioned the use of having a 20-page CSR reports that no one reads. “We are reporting a lot,” he said, “but are we actually informing?” In lieu of publishing long reports, he thought companies should work on being more concise and more directed towards consumers and employees.
A final theme of the Net Impact conference was that innovation around sustainability can create a competitive advantage as the business environment changes. Put another way, sustainability is not just about being “less bad,” but about being “more good,” according to Lynelle Cameron, Director of Sustainability for Autodesk. Hannah Jones, VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation for Nike, has a long-term vision for her company to “decouple our source of growth and business model from scarce resources.” To accomplish that, she said, we cannot just focus on “retrofitting the past” but must fundamentally change the way we think about how we do business, design, sourcing, and manufacturing. The status quo is changing and, at the end of the day, the winners will be those best able to adapt and innovate.