Ben Cooper

Comment: FMI/GMA summit sees sustainability as challenge and responsibility

By Ben Cooper | 5 October 2012

So, Coca-Cola wants eventually to develop a bottle that you can drink from and when you're finished eat? I suppose that is the ultimate definition of empty calories!

Brian Kelley, chief product supply officer at Coca-Cola Refreshments, did not go into detail about how his edible bottle might impact on the zero-calorie proposition of some of Coca-Cola's products when he addressed the FMI/GMA Sustainability Summit yesterday (4 October), but in terms of closing loops it is a compelling idea.

Possible futures were a feature of yesterday's agenda with Dr Sally Uren, deputy chief executive of sustainability think-tank Forum for the Future, looking ahead to how consumer behaviour is likely to change between now and 2020.

Dr Uren also had some interesting ideas about how sustainability champions in companies go about persuading senior management to take up proposals related to sustainability.

She suggested there was much that could be achieved through "quiet leadership". Among these approaches is "just do it anyway". Dr Uren suggested managers could initiate an innovation and "stay under the radar until they can show a win". There were also examples of "naughty just do its" who take rather more risks in adopting this approach.

A "just do it" may, for example, send out a press release without full authorisation. The company then has several options. It can retract the announcement, sack the person concerned or take a look at the proposal, realise it's probably not a bad idea, "and do it anyway". That may be right, but I'm sure I wasn't the only person in the auditorium to say under his breath "then fire him".

Another take on persuading the 'C-suite' about the merits of sustainability or "making the business case" was given by Bob Willard, an author and expert on quantifying the business value of sustainability.

Willard spent some time talking about the nomenclature for corporate sustainability, a concept which he said had proved rather difficult to pin down to one term. And it's true. As the sustainability drive has accelerated, a range of terms has been coined, from going green, corporate social responsibility or just CR, to corporate sustainability, sustainable business and sustainability.

But given that moving towards a more sustainable business model offers so many benefits in terms of increased efficiencies - Willard said that he had to dial down some of his findings in order for them to be credible - he suggested that a rather more simple and coherent way of labelling sustainability was simply 'profit'. Profit he said had only two syllables; sustainability has six! So the efficiencies have already begun.

On a more serious note, Willard noted that the human and social aspects of sustainability had proved much harder to measure than the environmental ones, which is no surprise. The environmental space offers so many examples of where sustainable innovation is simply about maximising efficiencies. There is such a direct read-across to cost - and profitability - that the business case is already made and senior management should need no persuasion whatsoever.

However, while the human aspects of sustainability might be harder to define and measure,  Willard said the risks to a company of not protecting and developing "human capital" were greater than any other area of sustainability. So the hardest area to quantify and therefore justify represents the greatest risk. It seems like corporate sustainability champions have not only a significant challenge but a heavy responsibility.

Sectors: Sustainability & the environment

Companies: GMA

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