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Beyond “sustainability.” It needs to be about more than minimizing the damage that modern society inflicts on the living systems that sustain it. And certainly more than minimizing the damage “only if we can afford to,” or “only as much as we can afford to.”

Though even that can be profitable. The ecoefficiency initiatives that characterized early sustainability efforts delivered nearly half a billion dollars to Interface‘s bottom line 1996-2012—contributing more than a third its total operating income in that period (and probably kept the company alive during the 2001-2 real estate downturn, according to its late CEO Ray Anderson).

Growing top line revenue makes a much more interesting story to most companies than trimming expenses, even as dramatically as Interface has done. After Natural Logic helped Levi Strauss & Co build its sustainability strategy a few years ago, Levi’s® took its learnings to market. In a big way. Guided by lifecycle assessments that pegged the biggest shares of footprint for a pair of blue jeans to growing cotton and laundering the jeans—both activities outside its direct control—the company took responsibility and took two bold steps (among many others):

  • changing the garment care tag to recommend cold water wash, generating substantive energy savings at zero incremental cost (Hey, CFOs: what’s the ROI of that? Or of “zero net” buildings delivered at no incremental cost?);
  • launching Water<Less™ products that “reduce water in the finishing process by ‘up to 96%’” (And with more than 13 million Water<Less™ products in the Spring 2012 collection, supported by an international customer-facing campaign, that added some attention-getting revenue to the company’s financials.)

In fact nearly half of the 2600 respondents to the latest Sloan/BCG sustainability survey say they’ve “changed their business models as a result of sustainability opportunities,” and more than one-third reported profit from their sustainability initiatives.

Where can companies find those opportunities?

We’ve learned, in our work with Natural Logic‘s clients, that the real opportunity lives in deep innovation at the constellation of profit, brand, risk —and purpose. Taken together, in their interactions and interdependencies, this constellation opens the door to a new level of business value in service of societal and environmental impact.

In fact many of the 29 companies that participated in WBCSD’s Vision 2050 project (“a new agenda for business laying out a pathway to a world in which nine billion people can live well, and within the planet’s resources, by mid-century”) found that what the world really needs—and what they know how to do—and perhaps is what they’re really here to do.

And yet… while 49% of CFOs (in a recent Deloitte study) saw a significant link between sustainability performance and financial performance, “only 39% feel that it is ‘very’ important to communicate the value of sustainability to their employees.”

To be continued…

I was deeply honored last month when I was inducted as inaugural member of the Sustainability Hall of Fame by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals — both for the honor itself, and for the company I shared. Here’s what I said (as best as I can remember) as I accepted the award from Marsha Willard:

All of us stand on the shoulders of others, so it’s an exceptional honor for me to be recognized together with those on whose shoulders I’ve stood. The other inductees have been my teachers and my heroes, and I’m humbled and moved to share this award with them.
I’ve known Amory Lovins for more than 30 years — and learned from his physicist’s way of thinking, his rigor, and his bold reinventing of how we think about energy.
Karl-Henrik Robert and I have known each other only about 15 years, and I have been grateful each of those years for the unstoppable elegance of the Natural Step framework — still the most dependable tool in my toolkit.
Bob Willard, maybe only ten years, but speaking of toolkits, Bob has, probably more than anyone, been delivering the tools for making the sustainability business case.
And of course Ray Anderson, who we lost just a few weeks ago, who took all the things so many of us talk about and put them to work at the heart of a multi-billion dollar corporation — with humility, grace and effectiveness. A prince.
There are many other sets of shoulders to mention, but I’ll name just one. I began this work in 1972, when I spent a month at the World Game Workshop with Buckminster Fuller and his organization. In a month long design charrette for the planet, I learned — I demonstrated for myself, in big picture, whole systems design, and in nitty gritty, down in the weeds analysis — that there’s no necessary barrier to human success on this planet, only our will. I signed on, back then, to contribute whatever I could to (in Bucky’s words), “a world that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological defense, or the disadvantage of anyone.” That’s been my guide ever since.
And here we are today, working to transform the economy of an entire planet. This planet. In one generation. I’m honored to be in this work, and honored to be in it with you.

We lost a giant this week. An insipration. A friend.

There have been many moving and eloquent tributes. Here’s mine.
Ray Anderson was a man of big heart, generous spirit, penetrating vision, fierce commitment.
He inspired and taught so many – including me – that yes, we could dream our dreams, and even bigger dreams. AND bring them in to being in the world. Even in the supposedly cold, hard, just-the-facts ma’am world of business.
Ray was able to show, at Interface, that sustainable business leadership could be bold, not tentative, and that it could be profitable.
For all his visibility, so much of what Ray did was invisible. But indispensable. (Few people know that Ray was one of the people that Walmart CEO Lee Scott turned to shape Walmart’s pivotal sustainability initiatives.)
I’ve heard Ray speak dozens of times — every chance I got, really — starting in 1994 (at Pam Lippe & James Nixon’s pioneeing sustainable economy conference in New York, and soon after at U of Oregon) when the spear in the chest story was still fresh, and “Tomorrow’s Child” was already the culmination of his talk, as it would remain for the next decade and a half.
I watched his journey unfold, as he brought in his “dream team” of Benyus, Browning, Fox, Hawken, Lovins, Lovins, McDonough, Piccard, Porritt, Quinn, Robèrt, Stahel to help figure out the HOW of the WHAT that was increasingly clear. As he turned to The Natural Step to help build shared framework that could get the entire Interface organization aboard — down to the fork lift drivers.
I watched him in the film The Corporation (actually I watched him hold the film together), and thought “This man is a prince” — in the very best, archteypal sense of the word.
We’ve been in retreat together, with the Tipping Point Network, and with his leadership team, and it was clear that what you see is what you get.
Most recently, we were together at the Sustainable Industries breakfast in San Francisco — he the keynote, me introducing him and handling the Q&A. He recounted his journey through the motif of “What if a company…?”, chronicling the successes down to the dollars and tons, concluding “I know this is possible, since this is my company, and we have done this. I told him then that I’d heard him speak 20 times over the past decade and a half, and that it kept getting better and better.
A lot of executives get hung up on “the business case” for sustainability. Not Ray. He understood (as I’ve written before) that the business case doesn’t tell you what to do; your heart does. “What’s the business case,” Ray would ask, “for destroying the planet?”
Tuesday evening, as many of us were reeling from the loss, a friend asked “With Ray gone, who will step up now?” I knew immediately how I would answer her, and posted this video:

Who? Me. And you.

As you may know, 500 of our peers just named me a finalist for the Pinnacle Award of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), for contributions to the field of sustainability. The other nominees are Ray Anderson, Amory Lovins, Karl-Henrik Robert and Bob Willard, so as you can imagine I am deeply honored to be in the company of heros.
Would you help me deepen the meaning and impact of this award? I’m looking for five people to work with me in a personal coaching relationship, so I can bring my experience to them — to help them take their sustainability work, their effectiveness and their impact to the next level.
Is this something that could benefit you, or someone you work with? If so, please call or email me today so we can discuss whether you’re an appropriate candidate for this program. I’ll ask you about your goals, concerns. commitments and challenges; I’ll describe how the program works; and I’ll make clear my commitments to you. (In a nutshell: to be more committed to your commitments than you are!)
I suggest you call today, since I’m limiting this program to five people. (Be sure to ask me about the special discount available for people who sign on by Friday May 27.)