Why sustainability leadership doesn’t have to mean going it alone

Why sustainability leadership doesn’t have to mean going it alone

Tuesday April 11, 2017

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This article originally appeared online with Corporate Knights.


It is surely one of the paradoxes of sustainability leadership that as we work to mainstream important environmental and climate action, we reduce the space to be stand-alone leaders in the first place.

A recent Ivey Business School report (2016) surveyed CEOs on the issue, finding three common barriers to prioritizing sustainability: 1) lack of knowledge about environmental issues; 2) inability to connect those issues to the business; and 3) competing priorities at the expense of sustainable action.

In my own experience, these barriers lead many corporations to be too hesitant to make progress on their sustainability journey. Some feel they need a complete and comprehensive sustainability action plan right out of the gate. Others who have a newfound focus on sustainability feel they already need to be an industry leader to authentically say anything at all about the good work they are doing.

But how can less vocal businesses find their voice on this important issue?

First, I think it is important to remember that in sustainability, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. Given the need for action today, it is critical that we do not let the quest for the most comprehensive, or most effective programming hinder movement or collaboration altogether.

Next, it is essential to understand how your business already is a participant in the communities in which it operates. Whether your business is very small and local in a clearly defined community or very large, decentralized and participating in many communities, the challenge is to understand the contributions and impacts you have in order to find your purpose.

For some, this means reconsidering what it means to be a business in the first place. The model of the social enterprise – where businesses find a social purpose to match their business model – is one way to do this. The social enterprise model is not new, but with more than 2,000 businesses boasting B Corporation (a social enterprise certification) status, it is becoming more prevalent. At its heart is the idea that businesses have a collaborative relationship with the communities in which they exist in and to which they contribute.

Another area of potential for sustainability leadership is in innovative collaborations. A 2015 BCG report identifies a shift in corporate sustainability from “isolated, opportunistic efforts to a more strategic—and potent—approach based on partnerships broad enough to include competitors, suppliers, governments, and NGOs.” And as sustainability leadership moves toward a collaborative approach, it is essential that those collaborations be replicable.

We need to start recognizing the value of collaboration in order to have a mature conversation about how the work we are all doing to make business more sustainable is not work that we can do within the silos of our own organizations.

Here’s an example. Bullfrog Power was proud to be a part of TD Bank Group’s recent decision to address the full scope of its energy footprint for its Vancouver branches and a portion of its business related travel in Vancouver, by using the full suite of Bullfrog’s renewable energy products. The collaboration is an example of how businesses can work together to achieve their sustainability goals. It also provides a model for how other businesses can contribute to building sustainable cities – and succeed on a low-carbon model.

Vancouver was an ideal location for TD because of the number of branches and the size of its energy footprint in the city. An environmental leader in its own right, Vancouver was well positioned for collaboration on sustainability. The City of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan, launched in 2011, encompasses green building, transportation and waste. TD could contribute to one of the plan’s major goals: reducing community-based greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent from 2007 levels by 2020.

“The City of Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy includes the goal of getting 100 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2050,” explains Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer. “By working with Bullfrog Power, TD is now at the forefront of businesses in Vancouver that are supporting the transition to renewable energy.”

The novelty of the green energy commitment – not obvious to those outside of the world of carbon reporting – is that TD is using a single solution to address all three scopes, or types, of its emissions footprint, which is a first in Canada for such a large organization.

The project was driven by TD Bank Group’s Chief Environment Officer, Karen Clarke-Whistler. Karen has a wide mandate, being responsible for developing and implementing an environmental strategy that meets TD’s stated goal of becoming the environmental leader in North America’s banking industry.

“As the first North American-based bank to become carbon neutral, we are committed to supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy,” she says. “Our collaboration with Bullfrog Power helped us address the entire scope of our emissions footprint in Vancouver. Just as important, the initiative also provides a model for how business can reduce the full impact of their energy use and play a role in building sustainable cities.”

Although this initiative is in service of a major goal – helping businesses to aid the transition to a low-carbon economy – one of the key learnings from the project is that collaboration comes in all types and sizes. Whether public or private, large or small, organizations can work together to achieve their environmental goals. Businesses can quite seamlessly work within and support the sustainability goals of the communities in which they operate.

Also, for a more collaborative form of sustainability leadership to gain traction, we need to think in terms of replicable models for community engagement instead of stand-alone initiatives. Only then can we move corporate social responsibility away from a model of contributing to communities from the outside to one in which we’re actively participating inside that community itself.

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