“What is the Future That We Want to Create?”


Darcy Winslow, Brightworks Sustainable Systems Group

Darcy Winslow

Businesses around the world are increasingly acknowledging the role of sustainability in their business operations – not just as a perk, but as a strategic initiative. Studies show 96% of global CEOs believe sustainability issues should be fully integrated into the strategy and operations of a company, a figure that rose 24% in just three years. And 80% of CEOs believe we will reach a point in the next 15 years when sustainability is embedded within the core business strategies of the majority of companies around the world.  (See the United Nations Global Compact CEO Survey 2010)

An exciting prospect, but how will they get there? In 2010, Brightworks formed the Sustainable Systems Group to advise companies around techniques and processes that catapult companies toward or hold them back from this goal. Systems Group member Darcy Winslow sat down for the Experts Behind the Experts interview with Kiersten De West recently for an informative 30-minute session on the methods leading businesses are using to tackle this transition and what their results look like.

This preview of their conversation highlights one of the issues Brightworks is actively working on with our enterprise clients – how the framing and definition of strategic goals opens your business to opportunities and innovation, or stifles it by focusing on incremental and issue-specific problems. To learn from the full session, visit Ci: Conscious Innovation.

Kiersten De West: What is sustainability to you?

Darcy Winslow: It’s the ability or capacity to thrive. It’s about thriving into the future, but not at the expense of next generation. How do we live in favor of the future? At a recent “Leading for Sustainability” workshop, we reframed sustainability as not a problem to be solved, but rather a condition we want to create.

Kiersten: Do you find that there are organizations that approach sustainability as a problem, and there are those that approach it as a solution or an opportunity? And do you find that there is a distinct difference in the results between the two as a result of their approaches?

Darcy: Yes, I do… When you look at sustainability as a problem to be solved, what typically happens is people get into reductive thinking, and things become issue specific. “How do we solve our recycling problem? How do we deal with waste throughout our business model?” Or whatever it might be, but it becomes issue specific. If you take a creative orientation, it comes back to: “What is the future that we want to create?” I think your long-term vision or north star – and consequently the actions that you take and how you organize the system in which you’re working – is very different and has a much greater impact. It forces you to see the entire system, to understand the interconnectedness, and consequently, the greater levers and opportunities that reside there.

In terms of some of the greatest examples out there, I have to throw Nike in there… They’ve set really aggressive long-term goals that go back almost 15 years. And those goals, and I think what we can learn from other companies is, they’ve got to be aggressive. What do you want to take to 100%? And what do you want to take to 0% in your business model? If we stay in the “50% increase/decrease” mode, then we continue to approach the problem through the same mindset and achieve incremental improvements vs. breakthrough thinking. Without companies on this leading edge we would not have seen much of the progress in the realm of sustainability.

I think Patagonia has always stood out, especially from their philanthropic aspect, but also their business model in general. Patagonia, Interface, Unilever – these are examples of companies that are really starting to wrestle with the question of the financial aspect and changing the rules of the game. How big is too big? How big is big enough? What does a “sustainable ROI” look like? Patagonia is certainly setting a benchmark by addressing the number of product SKU’s in their product line. And Interface is addressing the issue of lifecycle ownership: How do you, as a company, own everything that you create by leasing your product as a service rather than offering only a one-directional consumer product relationship?

The number of examples of companies involved in this work is increasing exponentially every year. But we have such a long way to go to achieve the necessary level of reduced impact on the environment and the positive impact to society. So there’s plenty of work still to be done…and the clock is ticking.

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