By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
For all those companies that are unsure about how to adopt sustainable business practices and concerned about the long-term management implications, Sarah Slaughter, Ph.D., a leading authority on business sustainability, can provide some reassuring perspective:
Sustainability is also an opportunity — and potentially a huge one.
When implemented properly — by building partnerships and taking a systems approach to solving problems — sustainability can create new markets and provide a business with opportunities for new products, services, innovation and revenue streams.
“Sustainability is about doing good and being a good citizen at one level — and that’s immensely valuable to a business,” Dr. Slaughter said. “But along with that is this wonderful opportunity for real financial growth, which can make sustainability much more than just a matter of compliance for a company.”
Sustainability and the importance of partnerships
To realize lasting success with sustainability, collaboration with a range of stakeholders is essential, according to Dr. Slaughter, the founder and executive director of the Built Environment Coalition, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving sustainability and disaster resiliency for communities.
“Almost every sustainability issue affects multiple parties and involves multiple points of intersection from business, government, various organizations and the community,” said Dr. Slaughter, who also teaches at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and ran the school’s Sustainability Initiative for several years.
“By bringing together a varied group of people with a range of interests, expertise, responsibilities and capabilities, you can arrive at a rich mix of solutions that no one party would be able to implement on its own,” she said.
Just how important, exactly, does Dr. Slaughter consider partnering for sustainability?
“If a company decides to go it alone and says, ‘We’re just going to do this our own way,’ — I, personally, wouldn’t invest in that company,” Dr. Slaughter said. “No long-range sustainability initiative should be conceived of alone.”
Video: Sarah Slaughter, Finding Financial Opportunities of Sustainability
Sarah Slaughter, Ph.D., a leading expert on business sustainability, talks about why CFOs must pursue a robust sustainability strategy that not only fulfills compliance requirements but may also open the door to new products, services and market opportunities.
A broad-based effort pays off big
To illustrate the positive impact of partnerships, Dr. Slaughter provides the example of a water treatment plant that wanted to cut costs and improve the quality of the water it provided.
The simplest, quick fix, go-it-alone solution would have been to refine its internal processes and use of chemicals to treat its water.
But instead, the utility looked beyond itself to clean up the water coming into the plant in the first place, so it would require less treatment. The facility partnered with nature conservation organizations, hiking groups, student sports leagues and others throughout the region.
“Each party made a contribution that ultimately yielded a cleaner watershed and not only solved the utility’s problem, but protected the health and well-being of the broader community,” Dr. Slaughter said. By partnering, the utility has reduced its treatment costs; customers get healthier water (less chemicals added); and the surrounding communities enjoy a cleaner environment.
Communities hold the key
Dr. Slaughter considers collaboration at the community level as the next big thing in sustainability and a key to deep and lasting sustainability solutions.
“We’ve seen a lot of action on sustainability at the top levels, from the federal government and major multinationals — and at the individual level, where people take responsibility to turn off lights and walk to work, for instance,” Dr. Slaughter said. “Now the focus is on the community, where people are eager to take responsibility to improve the places where they live and work.”
Business leaders need to leverage this community enthusiasm to help develop, implement and assess sustainability solutions.
“One of the wonderful things about working with the community is that often people have great ideas about what they can do right now to really address a lot of these sustainability issues,” Dr. Slaughter said.