This article investigates the steps businesses need to take to become a recognised sustainability leader. This could be within their own field, or it could be as a cross industry sustainability champion.

Beech trees during springtime

Just as it is not easy to become the recognised leader for having the lowest costs or highest quality, neither is it an easy process to become a sustainability leader. It requires ambition, commitment and dedication.

But sustainability is the most important transformation happening in business right now. Fortunately many farsighted businesses have realised the benefits that an organisational focus on sustainability can bring. These leaders prove what is possible.

Let’s now turn to the steps businesses need to follow to become a sustainability leader.

1.     Be honest

Being honest about your environmental performance is the first step to becoming a sustainability leader.

The 20th Century was dominated by businesses chasing success through ultra high levels of secrecy. Industrial espionage was rampant and companies dared not share information about their environmental performance for fear of losing a competitive advantage to their rivals.

However in the 21st Century it will be the businesses that disclose the most and the businesses that demonstrate the most responsibility that will be the most successful.

With respect to annual sustainability reporting, it is obviously important to disclose everything good that your business has been working on that year. But sustainability leaders go further, disclosing in detail what hasn’t worked that year and why.

But sustainability leaders go further than just reporting on their sustainability performance using standard metrics on an annual basis.

Take PUMA for example, which was the world’s first major company to put a value on its environmental impact.

I am minded to quote Peter Drucker, whose belief that “What gets measured gets improved” is certainly still true today.

PUMA’s first environmental profit and loss account revealed that their direct ecological impact equated to £6.2m and £74.7m was created by its supply chain.

This was a ground-breaking report and it should encourage other businesses to follow suit if they wish to become sustainability leaders.

To find out more, please visit the link below.

PUMA Environmental Profit and Loss Account

2.     Become a circular business

Circular economy business models are an excellent way to demonstrate leadership in sustainability.

Whilst they are challenging to execute, with the right mind-set and a determination to succeed and breakthrough, they can be achieved.

It could be argued that it is easier to design a circular business from scratch than it is to introduce circular thinking into an existing business. If they are being introduced to an existing business, it will require a commitment to a new paradigm, rather than incremental improvement to an existing business model.

An excellent recent example is AO the online electricals retailer, who will become the UK’s largest fridge recycler, after merging with The Recycling Group (TRG).

Retailer set to become the UK’s largest fridge recycler

This is exactly the sort of ambitious move that defines sustainability leaders from the rest. Sustainability leaders know that consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of what happens to their products once they are no longer useful to them. They use circular thinking to address customer needs from cradle to cradle.

3.     How you sell is as important as what you sell

Sustainability leaders see their business as a system. They realise that how they sell their products and services is as important as what they sell.

The first step on the sustainability ladder is to develop products and services with greater environmental performance. However, to become a sustainability leader, a greater number of areas must be addressed.

This should also be seen as risk reduction activity. Whether it is the normally whiter than white Glastonbury being caught up in a labour sting:

Glastonbury Festival accused of exploiting hundreds of European workers on zero hours contracts

Or the under fire Starbucks being accused of wasting water:

Starbucks ‘wastes 23 million litres of water each day’

Sustainability leaders would have addressed these issues before they became problems. They find ways of operating that take less from the earth socially and environmentally.

4.     Exploit opportunities

Sustainability leaders exploit opportunities to outcompete and stay ahead of their rivals.

They are not concerned with what the crowd are doing. These sustainability leaders use sustainability to win business, to enshrine loyalty and to lead conversations.

This could be done as part of a rebuilding project, or as a final step towards the summit of mount sustainability. Whatever path they take, sustainability leaders always exploit opportunities.

An excellent example in this regard would be Lego. Their determination to produce products from sustainable materials as well as addressing other environmental aspects has left them in a position of dominance within their industry on sustainability.

How Lego Rebuilt Itself As A Purposeful And Sustainable Brand

Sustainability leaders know that where they find business and environmental interests in alignment, that they should pursue and exploit that opportunity.

5.     Create a movement

Sustainability leaders don’t just seek to create a profitable and sustainable businesses. They seek to lead a movement.

By leading a movement they change their own business, but they also change their industry and society in the process.

They seek to create raving fans, who evangelise about their business at every opportunity. Because of this, they can afford to have minimal and in some cases non-existent marketing and advertising budgets.

Take Tesla for example. Look at the electric car market before and after their entry. They have undoubtedly created and are leading a movement.


What you need to know

This article investigated the steps businesses need to take to become a recognised sustainability leader.

Becoming known as a sustainability leader within one field or as a cross industry sustainability champion is not easy. But by addressing and excelling in the following areas, businesses can make progress towards sustainability leadership. They are:

1.     Be honest

2.    Become a circular business

3.    How you sell is as important as what you sell

4.    Exploit opportunities

5.    Create a movement

The examples shown throughout prove what is possible. Sustainability leadership, although challenging to achieve, is ultimately rewarding.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. It’s great to hear about other people’s experiences in taking sustainability forward.

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby



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