Far Beyond Sustainability

Far Beyond Sustainability

It’s great that the word sustainability is in such common usage today.  It suggests that people, organizations and institutions have accepted that environmental responsibility matters, and that we all play a role in achieving and ensuring it.
 
Still, I know plenty of people (both within the broader community of CSR thinkers and doers as well as outside of it) who find the word problematic.  Few would argue that the term is overused, and much has been raised and written about the limitations of sustainability as both a word and a concept.  Despite these limitations and challenges, though, usage of the term persists.
 
There is great diversity even among the most often quoted and widely used definitions of sustainability, among them, those developed, adopted or advanced by the United Nations, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Business for Social Responsibility, and the World Resources Institute.  Looking at these and at other definitions of sustainability collectively, a common theme emerges.  There is a strong focus on maintaining, preserving, and ensuring the continued viability of a process, product, resource, system or state.  Many would argue that, in terms of the environment and natural resource management, achieving this level of performance by business would be incredible.  It would certainly be a good start.
 
The notion of becoming truly sustainable and having no impact on the environment is becoming an increasingly popular mantra for business.  It could even be considered de rigueur for today’s CSR reports and global citizenship communications.  But what if a company were able and willing to go beyond simply sustaining, beyond having a neutral or zero impact?  What if, instead of just maintaining the status quo, they could have a net positive impact?  What if business could actually restore the damaged and broken elements of our environment?
 
Household and personal care products company Seventh Generation prominently lists “restore our environment” among its global imperatives.  And in its code of basic working conditions, Ford states that it seeks to become “an environmentally restorative and truly sustainable company in the long term.” I love the fact that both Seventh Generation and Ford use the notion of restoring.  They are among the only companies I have seen who are using that term.
 
Many companies are in strong positions to add to and enhance the world around us – to rebuild, refresh, replenish, and repair.  This is the thrust of Ray Anderson’s concept of the Restorative Enterprise.  Anderson is the founder and chairman of Interface, an Atlanta, Georgia-based carpet and flooring company.  As their Web site explains:
 
Interface committed to become the first name in industrial ecology worldwide. Ray set before his global team the challenge to convert Interface to a restorative enterprise. As a first step, this means reaching sustainability in our own business practices. To become truly restorative, however, will require Interface to ultimately return more than it takes. We will meet that higher goal by helping other organizations achieve sustainability.
 
The key line to me is “return more than it takes.”  Anderson and Interface recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of the launch of Mission Zero, a promise to eliminate any negative impact the company has on the environment by 2020, and the first part of their commitment to becoming truly restorative.  Since that time, the company has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30%, reduced total energy intensity by 45%, powered seven of Interface’s facilities with 100% renewable electricity, reduced water consumption in modular carpet facilities by 74%, and diverted over 100 million pounds of materials from landfills.
 
I am firmly in the camp that subscribes to Anderson’s ideology.  But the best part is that regardless of your opinions or beliefs about environmental responsibility, you can’t argue with Interface’s cold hard business numbers.  Since launching Mission Zero, Interface has enjoyed a 60% increase in sales and a doubling of its profits.  By eliminating waste, the company has also avoided more than $400 million in expense, more than enough to cover the costs of all of the other parts of the initiative.  And product quality, overall efficiency, and employee morale have all increased.
 
I continue to be fascinated and encouraged by the Interface story, and by the charismatic and pioneering Anderson.  Interface is the first and arguably only real poster child for the notion of the restorative company.  I hope this won’t be the case for too long.
 
On outdoor hikes and fishing trips when I was young, I remember my father instilling in me an ethic that has been popular with outdoors enthusiasts since time immemorial –that is to leave the natural places we visit better than we found them.  Clearly, this was instilled in Ray Anderson somewhere along the way.  And if he has his way, he will instill this approach in an entire generation of business leaders, so that other companies can follow down the restorative trail that Interface is so successfully blazing.

Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington D.C, and writer for the Hill & Knowlton Blog, ResponsAbility.

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