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Revolutionaries Welcome at SB'12 -- Regardless of Where You Are on the Leadership Spectrum

We are in the midst of a sustainability revolution. Global challenges such as scarcity of key resources and rapid population growth are making it essential for us to rethink how we live our lives and how we do business. Forward-looking brands and businesses have a huge opportunity to position themselves at the heart of a truly sustainable economy, capable of meeting the needs of the global population, fairly, and within environmental limits. Many brands have built trusted relationships with millions of consumers and with those brand loyalty, which can last a lifetime. This gives them both the power and the responsibility to help people lead more sustainable lives.

But, where to start? Sustainable Brands 12 offers all business and brands, big and small, an opportunity to accelerate progress towards sustainability, no matter what position you’re starting from. The important thing is, to really make your sustainability efforts pay, it’s important to know where you are on the journey, and where you want to go.

At Forum for the Future, we have developed the Leader Business Spectrum, which classifies an organisation’s approach to sustainability according to four categories: beginner, performer, leader and pioneer.

A beginner views sustainability issues (big environmental, social and economic challenges) from a compliance perspective – there is certain legislation that the business needs to be on top off to retain permission to play. The focus of the business is on legal compliance, understanding key environmental and social risks, putting in place management systems to manage these risks, with an organizational culture that is indifferent to sustainability. Within a beginner business, the power of sustainability to help build brand equity is yet to be realized.

A performer views sustainability as useful to the execution of the current strategy, as this business understands that tackling sustainability issues, from cutting carbon to using sustainability within brand communications to build new markets, makes business sense. Within a performer business, people, networks and procedures are equipped to pursue sustainability within the existing business strategy, although the deep sustainability expertise is usually held in core central teams. Sustainability has begun to seep into the brand, but is yet to reach the brand’s DNA.

A leader understands that sustainability can create long-term value for the business. There is clear commitment to sustainability at Board level, sustainability is a core strategic issue and the business is geared to looking for strategic opportunity from sustainability. There is usually a long-term vision or strategy for sustainability and staff, especially in key functions, are sustainability literate. Sustainability is also integrated through supply chains and into the brand, with sustainability being driven into marcomms and brand campaigns in ways that help the business, but also help the consumer, be they B2C or B2B.

The pioneer’s business is designed to deliver success by actively contributing to a sustainable economy and a sustainable future. The pioneer has a substantial portfolio of sustainable products and services and business targets rely on external collaboration. The pioneer understands that in order to succeed in the long-term, the business needs a different business model, and also needs to pro-actively shape the world around it. There is cultural permission for experimentation and disruptive innovation. Within the pioneer organisation, both the business model and the brand have been, or are actively in the midst of being re-engineered with sustainability at their heart. Sustainability has is on the road to becoming central to brand’s DNA.

Of course these categorizations are crude. And some businesses will be operating within different parts of the spectrum, depending on where you look. Also, it’s worth noting, that right now, there isn’t one business or brand that is displaying pioneering characteristics across all areas of its activities. But there are a handful of leaders, including Unilever, M&S and Nike, that are pushing hard into this territory. And for any business, shooting for the pioneer position across all areas of business activity, simultaneously,would be foolish, as the external context (yes, mainstream investors and mainstream consumers), doesn’t yet consistently reward sustainable behaviors (although this is changing – fast).

There is then a fifth category of business, what we at Forum for the Future call the ‘ambitious late entrant’. These businesses are seeing the competitive landscape change rapidly, are just realizing the enormous opportunity sustainability could present, and are keen to quickly move from beginner to leader. We are seeing more and more of these businesses pop up, often characterized by a passionate CEO, a clear sense of the business case (this isn’t just the right thing to do, it will also be the profitable thing to do) and a willingness to pull the levers of an aggressive change programme to get sustainability fully integrated into business and brand strategy (for example embedding sustainability into talent management programmes, creating budgets for sustainability innovation etc).

Those of us on the Sustainable Brands board of advisers are designing Sustainable Brands 2012 to give businesses and brands the tools and insights to move through this Leadership Business Spectrum, toward wherever you want to go, and regardless of where you are starting from. We know the SB community is full of Performers, Leaders and Pioneers, but, in early June in California, while we’re fueling the appetites of these would-be pioneers, I’m really hoping to be tripping over a whole new crop of ambitious late entrants as well. The world is taking rapid steps forward, and the Sustainable Brands community is keen to bring everyone we can along with us.

Written by: Sally Uren, Deputy Chief Executive, Forum for the Future and Member, Sustainable Brands AdvisoryBoard.  Join Sally at SB'12, where she will be leading a Scenario Planning for Sustainability Workshop on Monday, June 4.

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