Change is unavoidable in business. When Netflix began streaming media directly to customers in 2007, it changed the face of home entertainment. When Uber coordinated its first ride in San Francisco in 2010, it changed the transportation game.
Change is constant, and one of the biggest change-drivers facing business leaders at the moment is sustainability. In December 2019, Amnesty International released a survey detailing how climate change is the biggest concern for young people. Consumers want to patronize businesses that engage in more sustainable practices, and they’re putting their money where their mouths are by buying more products that prioritize sustainability.
You have a few options as a business leader: You can become a sustainability leader. You can follow others as they inevitability innovate ahead of you. Or you can be left in the dust.
How to Drive Sustainability.
If adopting more environmentally friendly business practices will boost your business, then follow these three steps:
1. Practice enlightened self-interest.
Midwestern utility provider Ameren embraces this mindset. CEO Warner Baxter believes a company is only as strong as the community it serves. As a result, Ameren invests in and builds up its surrounding regions — and the company benefits from the community’s positive momentum.
How does this affect sustainability? The pursuit of sustainable business practices makes sense because consumers ask for them and are more willing to do business with green companies. What’s good for the Earth ends up being good for your bottom line.
More broadly, your company and your community have a symbiotic relationship; what’s good for one is good for the other. If your community has robust job growth and economic development, then you’ll have more potential customers to serve. If your community attracts top talent and businesses, then your company’s resources, networking opportunities, and growth partners all improve.
For many business leaders, it can be hard to prioritize sustainability efforts when facing short-term pressures. But if you practice the idea of enlightenment self-interest, sustainability becomes an investment in your consumers, your community, and your company.
2. Take an entrepreneurial approach.
The same skills that entrepreneurs and business leaders use to scale companies come in handy when trying to acquire sustainability buy-in. Considering the decades long journey the electric car took from idea to execution, it’s clear that sustainability requires a lot of trial and error. There’s not necessarily a “right” way to be a sustainable business — there are a million different ways to embrace sustainable practices.
As with any innovation, don’t expect the process to be linear. You’ll need to spend time and resources finding sustainable practices that will deliver long-term results. You can’t be afraid of risks, and you can’t give up at the first sign of trouble.
Embrace a “learn fast, fail fast” mindset as you find green ideas that work for your business. Get creative, get comfortable taking calculated risks, and get everyone at your company invested in this long and rewarding road. Be clear that you expect some mistakes, lessons learned, and adjustments along the way.
Celebrate any small wins toward the bigger goal to keep up the momentum. If some of your team members proactively decide to source more environmentally friendly materials, for example, recognize and encourage those efforts.
3. Formalize efforts with collaborations.
Athletic brand Adidas has become a leading brand in sustainability due, in part, to its partnership with Parley for the Oceans. Through this collaboration, Adidas plans to use recycled materials to produce 11 million running shoes.
You won’t get anywhere without formalizing efforts toward innovation, and collaborations can be the best way to do that. Through a public-private partnership, or PPP, Ameren coordinates an accelerator program focused on sustainable and smart technology. Similarly, Los Angeles just announced a PPP to address sustainable transportation issues.
Collaborations enforce timelines, budget, and talent — investments that are necessary to achieve a goal. By forming partnerships with other organizations or community groups, you’ll have accountability partners. And while your business likely is great at its core competencies, and it’s unlikely you have all the in-house knowledge and resources needed to achieve sustainability goals.
One of the most imminent changes facing business leaders in the near future is the pressure to adopt more green practices. Businesses that want to be more sustainable must adopt enlightened self-interest, lean on entrepreneurial skills, and find mutually beneficial collaborations. Some bumps in the road may occur, but your customers will appreciate the movement toward sustainable practices.
Dan Lauer is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, an initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market. Dan is a long-standing, successful entrepreneur who’s founded multiple companies, including Lauer Toys Inc. Through the UMSL Accelerate, he serves as a catalyst for developing a vibrant ecosystem of students, faculty, and community to inspire innovation and advocate for entrepreneurship.