The Week in Ethics: Sustainable Excellence

For a long time when the term “sustainability” was mentioned in connection with business, the examples most often cited were Ben & Jerry’s, The Body Shop, Patagonia and Stonyfield Farm. Their founders’ formula combined a successful business strategy with an agenda of doing good in the world.

Gary Hirshberg said recently that he started Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest organic yogurt producer, nearly 30 years ago with the question “Is it possible to create an enterprise where everybody wins?” His company’s compound annual growth rate of over 24% in the last 18 years and the ongoing achievements in the company’s “healthy food, healthy people, healthy planet” mission suggest he’s on the right track.

Now it is a rare company that doesn’t talk about its commitment to sustainability on its website. Customers and investors want to know what a company stands for.

While it isn’t easy to tell the hype from real impact in companies’ sustainability reports, there are a lot of companies whose commitment to sustainability has been tested and who have integrated or are integrating sustainability into their core business strategy.

“Sustainable excellence” is a term used by Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell to describe companies that operate profitably, are committed to superior business practices, and “integrate consideration of society and the environment into their DNA.”

Their new book Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World draws on Aron’s 15 years with Business for Social Responsibility, the last six as CEO, and Zachary’s experience as an economist and money manager with a focus on sustainability as a driver of profitability.

Sustainable excellence is what the authors believe will drive lasting success and ultimately, redefine what excellence means.

The book is a rich collection of stories about successes and mistakes companies have made in dealing with the impact of their products on the environment and society, in human rights areas, and in relationships with NGOs and others.

The examples affecting Ford, Nike, BP, Levi Strauss, Walmart, General Electric, Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Shell, Starbucks, Google, Clorox and others offer specifics about best practices and ineffective solutions as companies seek to make real their declared commitments to sustainable practices.

Ultimately the book is about leadership. Is the leadership needed to achieve sustainable excellence different from general business leadership?

Cramer and Karabell say yes. More listening is required: listening especially to diverse voices. “By listening to unfamiliar voices, business leaders can see the future first—and steer their companies in the right direction.”

Whether by involving NGOs or others in strategy discussions to understand their concerns and making adjustments, or using outside advisor groups, or creating partnerships to address collaboratively problems, sustainable excellence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Cramer and Karabell urge business leaders to consider the following in their business strategy:

  • Think big: create business strategies that meet big global challenges
  • Use sustainability to drive innovation
  • Set the right incentives internally and externally
  • Embrace the transparent world – and collaborate
  • Make consumers your partners

Whether or not “sustainable excellence” catches on as a term or movement, Cramer and Karabell have raised the bar on what sustainability can mean in companies, and what the aggregate benefit can mean to the world.

Gael O’Brien, November 29, 2010

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.

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