The business of sustainability

Bob Willard gave a talk called “The Business Case for Sustainability” in the Council Chambers of the Davis Building last Tuesday.


“There’s a myth that sustainability is going to get in the way of being a successful company. And a lot of the rationale around the business case is to blow that away,” said Willard.


The event was organized by the UTM Green Team, UTMSU’s Ministry of Environment, and the UTM Environmental Alliance. A live video of the talk was broadcast to the University of British Columbia.


“Let’s not call it [sustainability] another ‘goal’; let’s call it a set of enabling strategies that help employees achieve what they are already being asked to achieve sooner and better than they otherwise would be able to. Then they will self-morph into something that is a more sustainable business model,” said Willard, talking about positioning and selling sustainability ideas to businesses.


Willard referred to a 2007 study that found that 72% of CEOs around the world thought sustainability should be fully embedded in the strategies and operations of their company.


“That was just before the recession. In 2010, 96% thought so,” continued Willard. “For the first time in the history of recessions, corporate attention to these issues went up. We have to show them that they can win the talent wars, and have more productivity in the workforce, and save money, and get more market share, and make more profit, if they pay attention to the environmental and social aspect of their business.”


Students at UBC asked questions via a live chat feed, such as: “Is there a way for businesses to collaborate to ask for regulation that helps them address sustainability in society?”


“One of my intents is to have the lobbying that’s being done by corporations with government officials to be lobbying that fosters these kinds of behaviours. The irony is that the oil and gas industry is asking Ottawa for a price on carbon. To their credit, they are actually lobbying quite aggressively for that,” said Willard. “I think there is a role for regulations, but I don’t want to have a business case that’s dependent on new regulations or else the business case won’t work. So I am not assuming any new technology or regulations. It’s business as usual today.”


Willard worked as a manager in management development with IBM Canada for 11 years. He received his PhD in adult education and sustainability from U of T.


His new book, The New Sustainability Advantage, shows case studies of how businesses can gain from using sustainability strategies.


“Potential increase in profit (for companies) in the next 3 to 5 years is from 51 to 81%. The challenge here is not so much the calculation, it’s the communication of the business case,” said Willard.


“I’m not asking them to save the world; I’m asking them to make more money. Meet them where they are, talk their language, help them do that, and as a co-benefit you’ll end up doing something useful for the environment.”

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