Leading Sustainably: The Path of Sustainable Business and How the SDGs Changed Everything, by Trista Bridges and Donald Eubank, is a thorough guide for turning status-quo businesses into sustainable ones. If you find yourself looking for more ammunition when speaking with someone who doesn’t believe businesses can be environmentally friendly, consider adding this to your reading list.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: How to turn an unsustainable, un-ecofriendly company into a sustainable one
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: It’s a comprehensive guide that tackles all the major obstacles to sustainability.
HOW YOU’LL USE IT: As a primer on the latest sustainable thinking, a troubleshooting book when you hit your own sustainability snags, or as inspiration to begin your company’s sustainability journey
Turning Interest Into Action
Leading Sustainably’s authors cofounded the sustainability consultancy Read the Air, and their book provides detailed instructions and resources for transitioning companies towards more sustainable business models. Those instructions are invaluable, given the gap between talk and action at many companies.
Most businesses today say social and environmental impact is important to them. In a survey of more than 100 companies’ annual and sustainability reports, Bridges and Eubank found that 76% mentioned the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs). Sixty-nine percent of company reports even tied specific SDGs to their business activities. But only 25% placed SDGs at the core of their business strategy.
So while it’s clear the majority of companies are paying attention to sustainability, few have translated that into systemized action.
Measuring the Sustainability Baseline
One reason companies are so slow to act, say Bridges and Eubank, is a lack of widely agreed-upon measurement frameworks. While there is a plethora of tools and initiatives aimed at assessing company sustainability, there is no consensus around which is best, or for whom.
For establishing baseline context, Bridges and Eubank recommend the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which creates a shared language between investors, companies, and industry regulators. Frameworks like the B Impact Assessment, the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, and Impact Management for Everyone are appropriate when companies are ready to turn their vision into action and opportunity into discovery.
But, as the authors note, deciding on the perfect tool is less important than simply starting.
Driving Sustainability from Above and Below
A trickier problem than measurement frameworks, say Bridges and Eubank, is the way our financial system emphasizes and rewards short-term results. To be truly sustainable, companies need to put the pursuit of quick returns on the shelf. There are three drivers seeing that change through: investors, employees, and customers.
Even investors whose top priority isn’t social impact would be wise to adopt a longer-term perspective, say Bridges and Eubank. Environmental and social risks can threaten business performance in nearly any industry. As a result, a growing number of investors are responding by screening out businesses that don’t understand those risks. This has made investors one of the prime drivers of sustainability initiatives.
Another major driver is employees, say Bridges and Eubank. Job applicants are increasingly picky about the moral stature of companies—a trend that is likely to accelerate. American Express recently found that 76% of millennials say that businesses need to have “a genuine purpose which resonates with people.” Generation Z is even more passionate: 94% believe companies should be responsible for addressing social and environmental issues.
Concerns about moral stature are influencing purchasing decisions as much as they are employment ones. Sales of products marketed as sustainable grew faster than average in more than 90% of consumer-goods categories between 2013 and 2018. And “greenwashing”—when companies present an environmentally friendly image without actually following through—is becoming harder to get away with in a world of NPO watchdogs and internet-driven callout culture.
Making Sustainability Synonymous with Business
Responding to market pressures can bring a wide range of rewards, say Bridges and Eubank. Companies at the head of the sustainability curve can discover new business opportunities, and even entirely untapped markets. Sustainability concerns have already transformed the fashion and food and beverage industries—think any product marked “fair trade” or “sustainably packaged”—and other sectors aren’t far behind.
In the future, Bridges and Eubank expect that “‘being sustainable’ will be synonymous with ‘being a business.’” They provide examples of real-world sustainability transformations, including KEEN, ECOncrete, and Dannon North America. Through them, the authors demonstrate that it’s already possible to pivot established businesses toward sustainability and to create start-ups that are both profitable and sustainable from the start.
That said, the authors are clear that solutions won’t be the same for every company. Nor will they be easy. The recommended strategy involves ten distinct steps, beginning with “getting leadership buy-in” and ending with “partnering with like-minded companies.” The steps don’t need to be completed in order—and let’s face it, when has any massive organizational shift gone exactly to plan? Business leaders can use the resources listed in the book to create custom sustainability transformation plans.
Leading Sustainably is written from a broad perspective and intended for middle managers and C-suite executives alike. As a result, some areas can be a bit vague. The authors are clearer about what needs to be done than they are about how. For instance, the authors emphasize that C-suite involvement is non-negotiable for sustainability success, but offer little guidance on how to spur that involvement.
Overall, though, Leading Sustainably is a tour de force on sustainable leadership, management practices, and practical steps to increase both revenue and social impact. The sustainable future is coming, whether companies are ready or not. This book can help companies adapt, survive, and create value for both themselves and the world.