Bob Willard, whose previous professional experience includes a management level position at IBM Canada for nearly four decades, was the keynote speaker at the Business Case for the New Sustainability presentation on Wednesday. His talk encompassed aspects of the business world that are primarily concerned with sustainability, which he described as having three components: people, planet and profit, or social, environmental and economic.
During the event, he explained that while each subset of sustainability relies on different factors to effectively prosper and maintain, they all operate as nested interdependencies – meaning their overall sustainability coincides with the others. Willard explained that the social and economic branches of this sustainability chain, human society and business, are “wholly owned subsidiaries” of the environment. In other words, the environment dictates how human society functions and the amount of success any business can experience. As a result, the imperative in the new sustainability is acknowledging and actively pursuing ways to preserve the environment and accommodate the industries and institutions that are vital for society to function.
Willard presents sustainability as a progressive, conscientious model that must be quickly adhered to by both the masses and corporations. The imperative inherent in any discussion about sustainability is that this is a change that is rapidly approaching, and has far greater consequences than any terrorist attack or stock market crash. Willard explained that the “escalating public and government concern in the last 10 years about climate change, industrial pollution, food safety and natural resource depletion” has fostered a new way of thinking that incorporates more than just environmental conservation.
Willard’s talk revolved primarily around a business’ prerogatives, in looking toward a sustainable future, or focusing primarily on profits and aligning with sustainable features only when it benefits a company’s bottom line. He elaborated that it comes down to a company’s opportunities in making the right decision or the risk in making the wrong decision.
“Businesses weigh risks and opportunities that they can capitalize on and will only make decisions when they can justify what they are doing,” Willard said.
Assessing a sustainable future is a noble act, but selling sustainability to shareholders is a different story, and the risks associated with revamping and remodeling an entire company’s infrastructure is not something executives will actively pursue. A sustainable company can be said to operate according to a five-step process, or a “Five Stage Sustainability Journey,” as Willard refers to it.
The first stage, according to Willard, is pre-compliance, where a company may say they have intentions or inklings about implementing sustainability. The second stage is compliance, where a company complies with sustainability tactics but has yet to integrate them. The third is beyond compliance and the fourth step is integrated strategies. It is the fourth step that shows where businesses place priority; of the thousands of incorporated businesses, 2 percent are publicly traded on the stock market. These companies, which collectively account for more than 40 percent of economic trade, have never reached stage four. Step five, purpose and passion, is beyond a multinational corporation’s frame of mind. This is where a company serves solely to provide for sustainability and acts on its tenants, as opposed to abiding by them whenever it may serve the company’s interests.
Cara Housel, a business major, attended the presentation and found the information engaging.
“As a business major, it’s always interesting to hear someone from the field explain how a business operates and what its priorities are,” she said. “I didn’t realize the scope and influence of businesses on society and how large a role they play in sustainability.”
And that is the belief that Willard hopes to convey. Toward the end of his presentation he gave a real life example of a small company in Ontario that worked toward implementing sustainable business practices. The results were staggering from the 60-employee company: profits increased 76 percent, there was a 58 percent reduction in cost for electricity, 90 percent reduction in natural gas costs and it saw a reduction of 115 tons of carbon dioxide emission. By working toward sustainability, this company proved that it not only serves humanity and the environment, but it can reap huge rewards by focusing on sustainable strategies.