Three Trends Moving Sustainability from Sea Change to Competitive Advantage

Kevin Lynch, Ph.D.
Leadership Executive-in-Residence
Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University

In a recent blog, John Ehrenfeld’s book, Sustainability by Design, was noted for his seminal definition of sustainability – the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever. But does Ehrenfeld’s bold vision have the possibility of becoming reality? Or will it die as other great dreams have before?

Chris Laszlo and Nadya Zhexembayeva, in their book, Embedded Sustainability, suggest that we are in the midst of a sea change driven by economic, health, social and ecological pressures that require a new type of business response. They cite three big distinct and interconnected trends that are becoming a major market force that is redefining the way companies compete.

The first big trend is declining resources.
Declining resources include clean water, food (and interestingly, food nutritional value), energy, soil and biodiversity. This issue comes more into focus when you realize that the earth’s population has increased from 2 billion around 1930 to over 7 billion today.

The next big trend is radical transparency. According to the authors, radical transparency is “fueled by the unprecedented growth in the public sector” and “enabled by rapid developments in the field of information technology”. As a result, “transparency has become dynamic, immediate, and a substantive force of modern corporate life.”

This transparency, and the technology that enables it, is used by all of us, including full-time activists that have specific agendas. Further, these special interest groups are now aligning with corporate partners to work more collaboratively than in the past.

The third big trend is rising expectations
. Consumers and employees alike are holding companies to higher standards with regard to products and work environment. In addition, focus is now placed on how a company interacts with the community in which it operates.

Constraints or Opportunities?

With the three trends as foundational thought, Laszlo and Zhexembayeva argue that corporate strategy is beginning to shift to address these trends. They suggest that, as opposed to considering these trends as constraints, forward-thinking companies are beginning to recognize these trends as opportunities. Consequently, sustainability is no longer a “siloed” strategy, but is instead embedded within all decisions made by the organization. And by embedding sustainability into strategy, organizations can begin to enjoy competitive advantages relative to peer companies.

As opposed to fighting or bemoaning trends toward sustainability, companies can shift strategy to become more successful as they move forward. Operating in a sustainable manner becomes a benefit, not a burden. And, when sustainable behavior becomes a benefit, then maybe Ehrenfeld’s definition of sustainability may become a reality.

Dr. Kevin Lynch is Leadership Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. As a practitioner, academic and consultant, Kevin specializes in assisting organizations that are experiencing rapid change, particularly with regard to strategic growth decisions, and the implementation of appropriate organizational infrastructure. Before joining the Center, Kevin was a senior executive in the real estate industry. He also is co-owner of a wilderness canoe outfitting business in Ely, Minnesota. Find more on sustainable business practices from Kevin and others here, including Kevin’s “10 Book Primer on Sustainability.”

Posted January 17, 2014 in CR Blogin Sustainability