8 Experts On The Top Corporate Sustainability Issue Right Now

By: Leah Kinthaert
Dec 10, 2019 2:35 PM ET

In his Harvard Business Review article last year Matt Gitsham discussed a growing trend of corporate leaders being remarkably proactive about sustainability: “If global temperatures rise more than 1.5 °C, the risks of draught, floods, forest fires, heat-related deaths and loss of agricultural productivity all worsen significantly… Predictably, environmentalists, pro-environment politicians, and countries especially vulnerable to climate change have reacted to all of this with distress. But perhaps a little less predictably, so have many business leaders.” Eillie Anzotti writing for Fast Company shared a similar viewpoint: “In times of political inaction at the national level in the U.S., people anxious for positive news have been looking to businesses and the corporate sector to step up. And, pleasantly, many have delivered.” John Weiss, Director of Corporate Programs for Ceres summed it up for SustainAbility: “Companies are reaffirming their commitments because they need to be responsive not only to the growing number of investors who understand the bottom-line implications of climate action (or inaction) but also to a global marketplace where climate remains at the top of the agenda.” Facing pressures from employees, customers and stakeholders, corporate attention to sustainability is certainly growing; it’s also rapidly evolving from environmental sustainability to also include cybersecurity, risk and CSR issues such as diversity and inclusion. It’s clear that sustainable development, once seen as “nice-to-have” is now a business imperative.

There are a great deal of ideas floating around out there about corporate sustainability, but there does not seem to be a consensus of just what is the number one priority or issue for companies. To add to the confusion, there are multiple, separate organizations that are tracking and monitoring corporate sustainability, here I will name just a few. We know that globally 682 companies, from The Coca-Cola Company to Carrefour, are taking “science-based climate action,” and that number has tripled since April 2018; additionally 285 companies have set “Science based targets”, meaning they are “in line with what the latest climate science says is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”. Sustainablebrands tells us that out “of 200 giant corporations… the number of companies with public, specific targets (was) 188 (94 percent)” in 2017. Brookings reports that “7,500 companies issue annual sustainability or corporate responsibility reports in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative”. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose primary focus is developing a circular economy for plastic, has 250 organizations on board with a pledge that “all plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable” by 2025.

I spoke to eight influential sustainability strategists ranging from a Chief Sustainability Officer to a Former Head at World Economic Forum to ask them either what is the most important directive for their organization around sustainability OR what they believe should be the number one most important directive for any organization around sustainability. Integration of sustainability into an organization’s core business values – as opposed to focussing on any one single sustainability ‘hot topic’ – was a recurring theme. Read what Ioannis Ioannou, Associate Professor, Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School; George Bandy, Chief Sustainability Officer, Mohawk Group; Alison Taylor, Executive Director, Ethical Systems, New York University; Wolfgang Lehmacher, Supply Chain and Technology Strategist, Former Head of Supply Chain and Transport Industries World Economic Forum; Farid Baddache, CEO, KSAPA; Debra Ruh, Global Disability Inclusion Strategist, CEO, Ruh Global Communications; Jed Emerson, Founder, Blended Value Group; and James Ellsmoor, Founder & CEO, Island Innovation, have to say on the topic.

George Bandy Jr., Chief Sustainability Officer, Mohawk Flooring North America, @Ecomafia12

“The largest directive for Mohawk Industries at this current time is focusing on how sustainability impacts people. The environmental and economic components are certainly important, but they also tie into the most valuable entity: our employees. So whether that is nature-inspired design and its impact on people inside of our workspaces; our Healthy Life Centers that help ensure our employees thrive; our new SHINE program that encourages and rewards employee health and wellness activities; or any number of our initiatives—these elements create a sense of value, comfort and wellness for this valuable resource. We also actively work to maintain this same level of commitment externally by leveraging our flooring to help create spaces that are safe and contribute to health and wellbeing, so that end users can be as productive, innovative and creative as possible. We also believe in the importance of supporting the communities where we live, work and play with our time and monetary resources through impactful organizations like the United Way and Susan G. Komen. These partnerships allow our employees to give back in meaningful ways at the local level and beyond. These commitments help us cross-pollinate with the seeds of sustainability so that we can begin to catapult this message and this focus on people throughout our organization and outside our four walls. We believe in the importance of creating more social ‘handprints’ versus environmental footprints, and this is perhaps best embodied in a strong commitment to and focus on our employees and greater society.”

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