In an era characterized by climate change and growing inequality, how should businesses define and achieve sustainability? SSIR contributors have explored corporate sustainability as it relates to everything from greater gender inclusion to ideas for getting staff and leadership on board. We’ve pulled together a reading list that explores these varying definitions and means of sustainability in depth.
1. The Next Phase of Business Sustainability
Many businesses have made significant progress incorporating sustainable practices into their existing corporate structures. However, Andrew J. Hoffman, Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, argues that the current form of sustainable business is reaching the limits of what it can accomplish. It’s time to abandon the model of “tinkering around the edges” and look for ways to actively transform the market.
2. Sustainability Managers Could Lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Advanced digital technology has the potential to create revolutionary environmental innovations, writes Joanna Radeke, manager of the Center for Sustainable Business at ESMT Berlin. She makes the case that corporate sustainability managers are crucial to realizing this future and suggests they address four critical issue areas: the ethics of big-data, workforce education, an innovation culture, and collaborative outreach.
While 48 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some kind of clean energy target, very few have similar goals for addressing gender inequality. According to Katherine Fritz, director of the International Center for Research on Women’s advisory practice, Genevieve Smith, client services manager at the International Center for Research on Women’s advisory practice, and Marissa Wesely, chief executive officer of Win-Win Strategies, advancing women’s opportunity is just as vital to corporate sustainability and competitiveness. Just as environmentalists used research to achieve their goals, the authors argue that women’s empowerment groups must demonstrate how gender discrimination negatively impacts companies risk, productivity, and growth across the value chain.
4. Can Money Grow on Trees?
Deforestation represents a huge environmental threat. But research suggests that restoration and conservation could provide 37 percent of the carbon emissions reduction needed by 2030 to mitigate. Sofia Faruqi and Caroline Gagné of the New Restoration Economy project at the World Resources Institute argue that environmentally conscious entrepreneurs and funders should invest in a simple solution: restoring trees. Already, businesses like Kenya’s Komaza and California’s TerViva are restoring forests while generating great revenue.
5. Fighting Sustainability Inertia
Though many CEOs want to prioritize environmental and social causes, only 12 percent of such corporate transformations meet these goals. Bain & Company consultants Jenny Davis-Peccoud, Paul Stone, and Clare Tovey found that sustainability overhauls often fail because when employees feel pressured to choose between sustainability and business goals, they almost always pick the business targets. The authors advise companies to clearly and publicly share their sustainability goals, involve CEOs and leadership teams across the company, and push to change employees’ decision-making mindset.
6. Net Positive: The Future of Sustainable Business
Standards for business sustainability have put too much emphasis on decreasing corporations’ negative impacts. Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender writes that this standard of simply doing “less bad” is not enough because it fails to hold corporations to the higher standard of creating positive change. The net positive approach, which seeks to change underlying systemic inequalities and take on challenges like environmental sustainability, offers an alternative.