The Next Decade: Bob Willard on “The Sustainability Advantage”

This year marks GreenBlue’s 10th anniversary. At the end of our first decade, what will the next decade bring for the sustainability movement? We’re asking this question of visionaries, thought leaders, business innovators, scientists, and educators. Read other interviews from the Next Decade series about the future of the sustainability, products, and business.

Over the past ten years, the sustainability movement has evolved beyond simply raising awareness or complying with environmental standards. It has now become an essential strategy for business to maintain a competitive advantage. A leading voice for this point of view is Bob Willard, who was the keynote speaker at last month’s SPC Spring Meeting in Toronto.

After three decades in senior leadership at IBM, Bob now dedicates himself full time to building corporate commitment to sustainability, and he has spoken to hundreds of companies to sell the business value of new ways of working. Last year, Bob was one of the five inaugural members of The International Society of Sustainability Professionals Hall of Fame, along with Gil Friend of Natural Logic, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Karl-Henrik Robert of The Natural Step, and Ray Anderson of Interface, who recently passed.

Bob’s landmark book, The Sustainability Advantage, just came out in a revised 10th anniversary edition, as The New Sustainability Advantage. A single sentence from the book sums up his whole philosophy: “The business case for sustaining the planet is stronger than the business case for trashing it.” We asked him to elaborate.

Your work provides a compelling economic case for sustainability. If it can save money and increase profits, why isn’t everyone doing it?

That question was screaming in my head when I finished the first edition of The Sustainability Advantage in 2002. So I did a doctorate at the University of Toronto to research what the inhibitors were, and I found that the biggest obstacle for companies is an entrenched mindset. Based on regulation-driven end-of-pipe efforts, business people can’t believe that anything to do with “environment” or “green” can be good for business. To overcome that mindset, we have to show the value in hard-nosed business terms: how much more revenue could they make, how much they could reduce expenses, and how could they mitigate material risks. That is, we need to meet them where they are and sell them on the competitive advantage of embracing sustainability strategies.

You identify five business models in progressive stages of sustainability: (1) Pre-Compliance, (2) Compliance, (3) Beyond Compliance, (4) Integrated Strategy, and (5) Purpose/Passion. The primary difference between stages 4 and 5, you explain, is that one does the right thing because it’s good business; the other practices good business in order to continue to do the right thing. You’ve said that currently there are no large, publicly traded companies that have achieved even stage 4. What will it take for that to change? 

They have to want to get to Stage 4 and fortunately some companies do. Regulations drive laggards to Stage 2, but can’t drive them to Stage 4. The only reason they will aspire to Stage 4 is if they realize that they could be more successful at that stage than at Stage 3, where they are simply capturing the low-hanging fruit of savings on energy, water, materials, and waste expenses. That’s why the Sustainability Advantage Dashboard and Worksheet Simulators are so helpful. They help executives project how much more bottom-line profit they could reap if they were to reach Stage 4. Once they are at Stage 4, they will have the courage to officially change the purpose of their business to embrace the environmental and social dimensions of sustainability and move to Stage 5. Stage 4 is an interim stage. A few companies, like Interface, might make the leap from Stage 3 directly to Stage 5, but most companies will need to get to Stage 4 using today’s business model before changing to become more values- and purpose-driven. Ironically, this does not require any sacrifice of business success. In fact, it is where the sustainability advantage really kicks in.

Who are some of the companies you feel come closest to achieving sustainability today?

Any B Corp, such as Patagonia, Seventh Generation, any co-operative, Interface, Ben and Jerry’s, New Society Publishers (my publisher), and many other small- and medium-sized companies founded by enlightened owners have many of the right criteria. I am increasingly distrustful of sustainability rankings, out of concern that they are celebrating the best of a bad lot. We need a better “gold standard” against which to assess companies’ progress.

The 10th anniversary edition of your book shows how much business has changed in recent years. How do you think business might evolve before the 20th anniversary edition comes out?

The take-up in sustainability strategies as enablers of business success in the last five years has been very encouraging. Based on a survey of 1,251 companies referenced in the UN Global Compact Annual Review 2010, 54% of business leaders agree that we will reach the tipping point by 2020, when over 20% of influential companies embrace sustainability strategies. That would be wonderful, and may happen sooner.

You give away your work readily. For example, your website provides a free calculator for businesses to estimate the cost savings they might achieve with various strategies. Why don’t you charge for such a service?

As a certified B Corp, my business model is a bit unusual. I am purpose driven. I would hate to look back in 10-20 years and regret that we had not progressed as far and as fast as we needed to on the sustainability agenda because we had not provided sustainability champions with easy access to helpful tools to get the job done.

My mission is to provide effective resources (books, DVDS, worksheets, dashboard, slides, etc.) to ensure that sustainability champions can credibly accelerate the pace of change. This is not about making money. This is about changing the world. Fast.

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