Join the journey toward sustainability

“If we can do it, anybody can. If anybody can, everybody can. That includes you.”

So concludes the foreword of Ray Anderson’s book, “Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist.” With a title like that you might think the late Anderson was talking about starting a successful business or discovering new markets or implementing lean techniques. He wasn’t even though he could have made those claims about the billion dollar company he founded. No, he was talking about his company’s climb up “Mount Sustainability” and their Mission Zero commitment to eliminate negative impacts on the planet while simultaneously delivering to investors and employees.

In these challenging economic times there has been a great deal of focus on unemployment and stimulating growth and incomes. And rightfully so, as those are pressing issues today. But looming in the background remain the long-term challenges of which I would argue sustainability needs to be at the top of the list. What do you think of when you hear the term sustainability?

If you are like many, you will associate the term with “being green” or recycling or earth-friendly. That is the definition that first pops into the mind of a large part of the population. But if that is the case we are falling short of the possibility that real sustainability offers to all of us.

There are many examples beyond Anderson’s Interface Carpet of companies who are striving to balance people, planet and profit in their operations. There is no one formula as it varies by industry, company size, geography and customers. However, there are some base activities that every organization can embrace:

  • Leadership Team Commitment, Attention and Action. “Walking the Talk” when it comes to sustainability. You can hear that commitment in the TedTalk that Anderson gave in February 2009 captured on YouTube. Or you could see it in the action of the late Sam Johnson when he removed CFC’s from Racine based S.C. Johnson & Son’s products in the 1980’s despite the business impact before legislation mandated change.
  • Holistic Thinking. Supply chains are incredibly complex and the global marketplace is more connected than ever before. Few people thought of “life cycle” analysis in developing products even a decade ago. Now firms are reviewing a product’s environmental footprint–from securing the raw materials to the product’s use and ultimate disposal.
  • Collaboration. Working together with suppliers, customers, employees and consumers to reduce waste and ensure products or services meet needs in a way that moves from the “take, make, waste” models of the past to embracing renewable, reusable, recycle and life cycle as new paradigms across the value chain. Locally a number of manufacturers like Johnson Controls and Rockwell Automation work with suppliers to eliminate waste and communicate the importance of sustainability.
  • Innovation. Making sustainability a core objective during the design of products and services in addition to the traditional elements of cost, resource availability and functionality.

Some will continue to argue the “false choice” of sustainability vs. cost asserting that it will always cost more to pursue a sustainable path. Yet, in a working paper referenced in the January 2012 edition of strategy+business, Robert G. Eccles (Harvard Business School), Ioannis Ioannou (London Business School), and George Serafeim (Harvard Business School) found evidence that U.S. firms emphasizing sustainability and other corporate social responsibility practices significantly outperformed similar firms that did not employ these practices as measured by both financial and stock market returns over an 18 year period.

Last April, we invited four Milwaukee business leaders to Alverno College for a discussion on how they viewed responsibility in their firms. The forum title was “The Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet and Profit. How Leaders Make the Tough Choices.” Tina Chang, chairman and CEO of SysLogic, Inc.; Allen Leverett, president and CEO of We Generation; Clay Nesler, vice president, Global Energy and Sustainability for the Building Efficiency business of Johnson Controls Inc.; and Mary Ellen Stanek, managing director and director of asset management for Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. shared their insights and perspectives on how their organizations grapple with challenging questions and the 200 forum attendees left with increased awareness and broader understanding.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Vicki Holschuh, senior vice [resident-retail services for Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin, Inc., and Clay Nesler, vice president of Global Energy and Sustainability at Johnson Controls Inc. will join us to explore how their firms pursue a sustainability agenda in a variety of ways. I hope you’ll join us.

“If we can do it, anybody can. If anybody can, everybody can. That includes you.”
Dan Horton has been the dean of the School of Business at Alverno College since August 2011. Prior to this he held a variety of business leadership positions in finance, marketing, information technology, manufacturing and global shared services at S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.

For further information on the Alverno Forum on sustainability go to to register.

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