Thursday, 4 August 2011

Embedded sustainability - an idea whose time has come

I have been struck recently by the possibility that business may finally be grasping the concept that corporate environmental and social responsibility needs to be embedded in the organisation and, furthermore, that it might actually bring commercial benefit. This point is made convincingly by a new book - Embedded Sustainability: The Next Big Competitive Advantage, by Chris Laszlo and Nadya Zhexembayeva (Greenleaf Publishing, 2011). There's an executive summary of its contents, and a discount code (although sadly not valid on the ebook), on the Defra Sustainable Development website.

The book argues that the companies who will succeed are those who choose to embed sustainability into their DNA, incorporating environmental, health, and social value into core business activities with no trade-offs in price or quality. But unlike the ubiquitous bolt-on approaches, embedded sustainability requires a fundamental paradigm shift across every dimension of the business. The writers believe that most organisations have yet to discover how to meet both shareholder and stakeholder requirements in the core business – without mediocrity and without compromise – creating value for the company that cannot be disentangled from the value it creates for society and the environment.
This point of view is taken still further by another author, Carol Sanford in her title The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Carol argues that the most successful and profitable businesses, over time, will not be those that "practice CSR" but instead those that rethink their purpose, reorganize themselves to draw upon the creativity and passion of all, and integrate responsible behavior into the way they do everything they do. And, as she told, that goes beyond embedding sustainability into the business; taken to its logical conclusion, it could mean the end of CSR as we know it.
These are familiar concepts to me, after almost 20 years working for a subsidiary of Kyocera Corporation, which could be the poster child for responsible business. Kyocera's founder, Dr Kazuo Inamori, established the Kyocera Philosophy in the early 1960s, shortly after the company was founded, and at its heart is a single, simple promise: to do what is right as a human being. Almost 50 years on, and with over 60,000 employees across the World, Kyocera employees are still trained in the Kyocera Philosophy and refer to its guiding principles in their daily decisions. All well and good - but it provokes another dilemma. We simply don't have the vocabulary to describe this alternative approach to business in a way that is concise and easy to understand. As with sustainability, the lexicon for ethical and responsible business is littered with terms that fail to convey effectively the commercial and social benefits that accrue from this approach.

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