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Willard: Sustainability Champions Must Learn to ‘Speak Business’

Bob Williard present the Sustainability ROI Workbook at SB'17 Detroit.

For several years now, Bob Willard, former IBM exec and current sustainability “guru,” has been working to create a resource to help sustainability champions break through to senior leadership and accelerate change within the business world. Last week, on day one of SB’17 Detroit, it officially launched.

His central thesis? You need to meet business where it is – in terms of priorities and language – and to do so, you must be able to articulate how sustainability serves business priorities. In his Monday morning session, Willard walked a roomful of eager sustainability professionals through the newly released Sustainability ROI Workbook, a tool that he is making accessible to anyone and everyone through an open-source offering.

There are three justifications for business to consider a sustainability initiative – doing the right thing, capturing opportunities, and/or mitigating risks. The good news, says Willard, is that the math works out – several recent studies have shown that there is real value in sustainability. According to one, achievement of the SDGs’ 169 targets would generate $12 trillion worth of opportunities and 380 million jobs. On the risk side, the 2017 WEF Global Risks Report placed extreme weather events at the top for likelihood and impact over the next 10 years. At a company level, by addressing the emerging risks and opportunities related to sustainability, one can expect to increase profit by 51-81 percent and reduce risk by 26-36 percent.

So why, then, do only 2 percent of corporate sustainability transformation efforts meet or exceed their aims? The central challenge that Willard is trying to tackle is how to get sustainability champions to “speak business,” rather than the other way around. By speaking the same language and setting common priorities, there is much less chance that expectations will be mismatched.

To get the ear and the buy-in of the decision-makers, the purse-string-holders, we need to meet the business where it is and show how sustainability initiatives can help companies meet their financial and business goals. The Sustainability ROI Workbook is intended to help you do just that.

The tool is presented in the form of an Excel document. The user can enter as much information as is relevant into the tool to determine the ROI, revenue growth, operational expense savings, human resources expense savings, or whatever other financial metrics might be relevant to the scenario. Tailored guidance and linked formulas throughout make the tool easy to use and easily customizable.

While the tool is certainly useful for internal sustainability champions, it will also prove valuable for sustainability consultants who can now provide quantitative benefits on their strategies and deliverables. MBA, Public Policy and other relevant graduate programs can also use the tool to prepare future practitioners for a rigorous form of sustainability – one that is truly integrated with core business value.

The end goal of the tool and offering it through an open source means is to empower people to talk to each other in a common language – revenue, profit, asset value and/or stock price – the language of the decision-makers. Make sustainability speak business, rather than the other way around – perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn if we want to really accelerate change toward the #GoodLife.


Katherine is a Stakeholder Communications Director with 10 years’ experience inspiring audiences at Fortune 500 companies to change behavior through compelling storytelling and reputational risk strategies. Most recently, Katherine was Client Director with Context Group, a boutique corporate sustainability consultancy, where… [Read more about Katherine Hand]


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