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Should Sustainability wait until better times come along?

“We would love to work towards being more sustainable, but in the current economic climate we simply can’t afford it. Sustainability will have to wait until better times come along.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Let’s leave to one side the question of whether better times are going to come long anytime soon. And the question of whether any of us can afford for others to delay ‘doing something about sustainability’. Let’s concentrate on the notion that sustainability is something that might be difficult to afford. Sounds logical? Here are some quotes from Ray Anderson’s recent book ‘Confessions of a radical industrialist’:

“…in 1973, I took the entrepreneurial plunge and founded a company… We grew that company from scratch into the world leader in carpet tiles with annual sales of more than a billion dollars. In 1994… I steered Interface on a new course – one designed to reduce our environmental footprint while increasing our profits. I wanted Interface, a company so oil intensive you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry, to be the first enterprise in history to become truly sustainable… I’m profit-minded and extremely competitive. I thought ‘going green’ would definitely enhance our standing with our customers and maybe give us some good press, too. But I also thought it just might be a way to earn bigger profits from doing what was right by the earth… Our goal was to prove – by example – that you could run a big business both profitably and in an environmentally responsible way. And we succeeded beyond my own high aspirations.”

Is Ray Anderson’s story unique? Was there something special about Interface that made them different from other organisations? Some reason why they could dramatically cut waste, reduce environmental footprint and at the same time save hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating waste, and substantially increase profits? Were they able to do this because of their size? Because there was something inherent about the carpet business that made it easy for them? Because there was something unusual about their business context that was supportive of this kind of change?

In 15 years of helping businesses to assess their strengths and opportunities and make improvements, I have met many ‘unique’ businesses. “Ah yes, you could do that sort of thing in that sort of organisation…. but, you see, we’re different.” On the other hand, I’ve met just as many – maybe more – people who adopt a can-do attitude, who see opportunities rather than difficulties, and take inspiration from others’ achievements rather than seeking out reasons why “that will never work here.” I hope those people are sharpening up their can-do attitude, and applying it to infuse sustainability into every corner of their businesses. I’ve got a hunch they’re going to see their businesses doing better as a result. Those who wait for better times before getting serious about sustainability just might be waiting a very long time.

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Posted: Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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