Sustainability: Leverage or Burden?

By Ed Bernstein, IRI President, and Greg Holden, Business Writer

How one frames a question matters. Media pundits of all stripes can attest to this simple fact; the choice of words when framing your topic matters to how your message is received. Take, for example, the question of whether or not to pursue the implementation of sustainability best practices at your organization. How your organization’s leadership requests such an implementation matters to how it is received by those performing it.

It is possible, for instance, that they asked you to cut back on energy usage and reduce waste in order to meet your company’s new sustainability standards, but the choice of words (e.g. cut back, reduce) reek of imposing a cost with no sign of the potential value gained by doing so. You might take pride in reducing waste and brag about how much energy your organization saved by the newly implemented measures. But isn’t sustainability more than just savings? Is it not also about building a better future and leveraging such practices to innovate a new, more sustainable, way of living?

The U.S. Marine Corps, with a motto of “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome,” is well known for their ability to transform a need to be sustainable with critical innovations in the field. A group of soldiers are rigorously trained in harsh conditions and given inadequate funding and supply, but are told to make do with what they have. The result is a legend that surrounds the Marine Corps, whether true or not, that they are famous for improvisation under conditions of resource scarcity. They leverage their need to be sustainable and by so doing transform an undersupplied band of soldiers into a fighting force with few rivals. They aren’t asked to cut back on energy usage and reduce waste, they’re told “Here is what you have, good luck out there.” Their resourcefulness then becomes a strength that adds to their legendary aura.

But opposite the positive framing sustainability adds to Marine Corps adaptability stand such attempts at reframing the term “sustainability” as Kansas House Bill No. 2366. The bill, which fortunately went unheard during the recently ended 2013 legislative session, stated that public funds could not be used to “promote or implement sustainable development” in Kansas, extending even to the payment of dues to any association that supported sustainable initiatives. Such attempts are a simple reframing of sustainability as a euphemism for harsh regulations against oil and gas industries, which Kansas has in plenty.

Sustainability gets perceived in these two ways (i.e. leverage vs. burden) depending on how it gets sold, but studies clearly show that companies which track sustainability initiatives perform, across the board, better than those that don’t. Some reports even show that such organizations are better positioned to manage risk and respond with more agility to market fluctuations. The caveat to each report, though, is that sustainability measures must be “done right” to be truly effective.

An IRI Research-on-Research (ROR) group set out to explore best practices in sustainability implementation in 2011, creating the Sustainability Maturity Model as their end-product. This model helps organizations distinguish their place on a sustainable development path, in comparison with other organizations tracking sustainability, in order to determine next-steps and other best practices currently in use. The same ROR group is continuing their study with a new ROR project called “Sustainability-Driven Innovation,” meeting for the second time at the IRI Diamond Jubilee this May in Washington, DC—after having developed a research plan at the IRI Winter Meeting in February—and focusing on the ways in which sustainability can be a leverage to drive innovation.

All IRI member companies are welcome to participate in the study. The group plans to tackle sustainability issues such as the “determination of ‘typical practices’ at IRI member and other companies,” “the identification of what fails at ‘typical’ companies and why,” and the “identification of best practices among companies that have consistently excelled at leveraging sustainability for innovation success.”

Sustainability is an issue wrought with misunderstanding and the onus of bearing a striking resemblance to a cost imposition with low value gained. As pointed out earlier, though, the framing of a question matters. Companies who are tracking their sustainability are proven to be more effective innovators and usually have higher performance. Let us frame the question, then, so it carries the most weight for everyone. Is your company tracking growth and building a better future like today’s top performers, or are you continuing to fall behind the curve on innovation because you have yet to grasp the true meaning of sustainability? Join us this May in Washington, DC, and find out how you can learn from the world’s top sustainability innovators.

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