Archive for the ‘ Sustainability ’ Category

Sustainability? Ask Why.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of cultural integration and the need for a shared vision to guide the sustainability agenda, particularly through times of leadership change.  That made me reflect on how we get to that shared vision: we start with ‘why‘.

 

In my view, “why?” is one of the most critical questions any organization must ask itself before embarking on a sustainability journey.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine and he was telling me his company had established a new sustainability committee.  When I probed a bit, he explained that the CEO had declared his desire for the company to issue a sustainability report, and the committee was struck to guide that task.  The committee, however, was struggling.

As we talked, it soon became clear there had been no internal discussion about why the company was suddenly pursuing a sustainability report, and no clear understanding about what the sustainability report was supposed to achieve.  No wonder the committee was unsure of its direction!  This is not the first time I’ve encountered a company that has kicked off a sustainability initiative with a vaguely defined outcome, and I know, if there’s no intervention, where it’s probably going: to fail.

Taking action without a fulsome consideration of the driving reasons behind the sustainability agenda can lead to serious difficulties in implementation, as well as frustration arising from unmet expectations both within and outside of the organization.

Let’s go back to the example of my friend’s company.  As we talked some more, we explored the possible reasons why the CEO might have wanted a sustainability report.  Was it because the company’s investors were asking for one?  Then the company would need to show how its sustainability attributes are contributing to the bottom line, and how it is managing environmental and other material non-financial risks.  Was it because competitors were already producing one?  In that case, the company would need to figure out how it compares and what differentiates it from others in the sector.  Or was it because reporting might help the company to track and improve performance?  Perhaps sustainability reporting isn’t the first step then.  Maybe the company should establish some internal data management systems first, set some performance objectives, and start collecting data on key aspects, and then tackle reporting next year.

As illustrated by this example, asking “why?” can uncover a range of reasons, each of which may demand a different strategy and different action to achieve the desired outcome.  In some cases, those strategies may be complementary, but in others, taking action that might be responsive to one sustainability driver may conflict with achieving the objectives of another.  Thus, if the driving reasons behind a sustainability initiative are not clearly understood at the outset, there’s a good chance the selected strategy won’t achieve the desired outcome.

Careful deliberation of why an organization is contemplating action on sustainability helps to develop and articulate a shared vision that will not only guide that action over time, but also help the organization to identify, scope, and coordinate the programs necessary to support that vision.

Is your organization beginning a sustainability initiative?  Ask why.

Maximum City: Engaging Youth in Urban Sustainability

Last month, I had the opportunity – and the privilege – to participate in the Maximum City program in Toronto.  This program is the brainchild of Josh Fullan, a high school humanities and languages teacher at the University of Toronto Schools, my alma mater.  Last year, Josh ran a pilot program that brought a small group of students from two Toronto-area high schools together with a team of experts and professionals in a wide range of urban disciplines, including architecture, design, planning, transit, municipal governance, community development, and communications.  Over the course of  a week, the students listened to lectures and took part in design exercises and field trips in a series of modules that exposed them to new ideas and key concepts in urban development:  Built City, Planned City, Engaged City, Transit City, Liveable City, Pedestrian City, Governed City.  The week culminated in a neighbourhood visioning study and design charrette.  The outcome?  A small but thoroughly engaged group of young people with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of urban issues and solutions.

When I read about the program last summer, I thought it sounded terrific – the kind of thing you wish they had when you were a kid!  But I couldn’t help noticing there didn’t appear to be any content explicitly dealing with urban sustainability.  So I called Josh to tell him so.  A few lunches and many emails later, I found myself on a flight to Toronto in the middle of July, busily finalizing my notes for the introductory module to this year’s program.  The theme of Maximum City 2012?  Sustainability.

On the first day of the program, I delivered a crash course on sustainability.  After explaining the traditional “three-legged stool” model of sustainable development, I had the students brainstorm all of the things they could think of in an urban setting that were necessary for sustainability, and I was delighted when their answers moved beyond the environmental, social, and economic realm to take in concepts of governance, co-operation, change, and compromise.  Here’s a sample of what they were thinking…

 

 

 

 

 

 

We talked about interdependence and interconnection and integration.  And I asked them to look for these relationships and linkages in all of the other modules, which spanned two weeks and covered even more topics than last year’s pilot program (Park City, Smart City). Once again, the program culminated in a design challenge, which this year had teams of students redesigning an underperforming city block with a focus on sustainability.  As a resource person and member of the critique panel, I had the opportunity to watch the students move through mapping the neighbourhood, identifying challenges and opportunities, and conceptualizing and actualizing solutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was totally floored – and inspired – by the creativity and capacity for synthesis and problem solving shown by these students.  Their quick grasp of key concepts is demonstrated by these ‘mental maps’ one group created to explain the elements and linkages included in their neighbourhood vision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a matter of hours, the students’ ideas transformed an underused and unwelcoming city block into a hub of social interaction, economic diversity, and improved environmental performance, with improved connection to the surrounding community and a more productive use of urban space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Maximum City program is driven by Josh’s vision that young people can be key contributors to understanding and shaping our rapidly urbanizing world.  Indeed, as I witnessed the students getting more and more engaged through the program, I was reminded that youth have their own ways of seeing, interpreting, and interacting with the urban landscape, and there is great value and potential opportunity in integrating those perspectives into the dialogue of city-building.  Sustainable development is, after all, about meeting the needs of the next generation as much as our own.

If you are interested in urban sustainability – and if you live, work, or play in a city, how can you not be? – I encourage you to check out this program, maybe start a similar program in your own city, or find a way to engage youth around issues of sustainable development.  You’ll likely come away inspired, encouraged, and motivated, as I have been.

 

Check out the Maximum City program here:  www.maximumcity.ca

Find Maximum City on Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/maximumcityschool

Follow Maximum City on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/maxcityschool

A Good Sign?

My daughter’s love of Playmobil is unabated, and she recently used her spending money to order some new sets.  This time, I’m pleased to report, I’m much happier with the packaging! (See my previous post The Red Flag over Playmobil’s Castle.)

Playmobil’s packaging

Not only was the outer box appropriately sized for the contents, but they used Automated Packaging Systems’ “EarthAware” recycled film air pillows to fill the empty space.  This packaging contains at least 95% pre-consumer recycled material, and I can recycle it where I live.  Of course, the cardboard boxes themselves are recyclable.

Areas for improvement?  They could probably make the set boxes themselves smaller, and use recycled-content plastic packaging for the pieces inside.  There’s also no indication that the semi-glossy paper used for the assembly instructions has any recycled content.  And I still can’t find any corporate responsibility or sustainability information on their website.  But I’ll flag a good thing when I see it.

A National Vision of a Sustainable Future

Qatar has something every country needs.  I’m not referring to oil or natural gas, although Qatar has both in abundance.  I mean a national vision of and strategy for sustainable development.

Doha skyline

In less than a generation, Qatar has experienced huge economic and social transformation.  The discovery and development of its hydrocarbon resources has fuelled – pardon the pun – Qatar’s economic growth from a small nation dependent on fishing and pearling to one of the highest per capita income countries in the world.

In the face of that rapid expansion, however, new challenges have emerged.  Qataris now need to balance modernization with the preservation of values and traditions, a priority in a country where 80% of the people are expatriates.  They must also figure out – as we all must – how to achieve economic and social equity for present and future generations while protecting environmental health.

Recognizing these challenges, Qatar embarked on an initiative to define the characteristics of the country’s future.  The State established the General Secretariat for Development Planning, which undertook multi-stakeholder consultation across Qatar.  The Qatar National Vision 2030 is the product of that initiative. Click here to read on about the key elements of Qatar’s sustainable future!

Canada’s Sustainability Heroes: the Clean 50

Earlier this month, Delta Management announced the inaugural Clean 50, a group of committed individuals who have made significant contributions to sustainability or “clean capitalism” in Canada in recent years.  These 50, either individually or, often, as leaders of a team, have been unrelenting advocates for sustainability in their organizations, their sectors, and their communities, collectively elevating the level of dialogue in Canada around environmental and social performance and innovation.  This group of talented and inspiring leaders epitomizes the drive and dedication that characterizes the sustainability field in Canada today.  And so it was with enthusiasm and excitement that I took part in the Clean 50 Summit held this week in Toronto. Read more about moving from ideas to action

The Red Flag over Playmobil’s Castle

My daughter loves Playmobil.  She spends hours constructing and then animating complex scenes and she’s a master at combining parts from different sets to create new structures that aren’t in the well-thumbed Playmobil catalogue.  Except for the unpleasantness of stepping on a rogue piece in the dark or sifting through the dust of the vacuum cleaner bag to recover some special plastic bit, I quite like the stuff myself.  It’s the sort of toy I wish I had when I was a kid.

However, I must admit I’m disappointed by the company’s apparent inattention to sustainability.

A set my daughter bought was missing a piece – a rare occurrence – so I ordered a replacement part through the company’s website.   Here’s what I received in the mail a couple of weeks later:

The piece

The packaging

The piece itself is about 3 x 2 x 2 cm!  You could fit  hundreds of them in that box!  (At least the box was not also filled with those hard-to-recycle (and annoyingly clingy) styrofoam chips.)

This experience prompted me to go to Playmobil’s website to find out where they stand on sustainable packaging.  Much to my chagrin, I was unable to find any information about any aspect of sustainability at Playmobil and its maker, Geobra Brandstätter gmbH.

I went out to the shed to check the original packaging; a few boxes have Der Grüne Punkt, indicating the company participates in the Green Dot program in Germany, but there is no other mark to indicate recycled content or recyclability of the packaging.

There are so many resources out there now to support manufacturers in adopting sustainable packaging materials and systems, there really is no excuse for a consumer products manufacturer to ignore this aspect of corporate responsibility.  For example, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is an industry working group that offers courses, briefs, design guidelines and other resources for sustainable packaging.  The Sustainable Packaging Alliance provides tools and delivers workshops and events.  Or check out the annual Sustainable Packaging Forum, coming up in September in Texas.

Sustainable packaging minimizes material waste, both in manufacturing and end-of-use disposal.  It also reduces energy and emissions associated with transportation from factory to distribution centre to retail store.  And, of course, it saves money in material costs, transportation, and warehousing.

Playmobil red flagAny way you look at it, the clearly unsustainable packaging used to send me this replacement part is a red flag.  It shows that Playmobil either isn’t doing anything about sustainable packaging or, if it is, the company has overlooked certain customer transactions that involve packaging.

That there is no publicly available information about Playmobil’s corporate responsibility programs, too, is a red flag.  Does it mean that Playmobil and Geobra are doing nothing about sustainability?  Or does it mean, simply, they aren’t communicating what they’re doing?  Either way, it’s leaving me and every other interested consumer in the dark.  And that’s no way to build confidence and trust.

Click here to access Playmobil’s Facts and Figures page (over 2 billion figures manufactured to date!)

Image of Playmobil part from this eBay listing.

What Makes a Sustainability Leader?

Ray Anderson

Many of us in the corporate responsibility and sustainability community were saddened this week by the death of Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface.  If you don’t already know his story, Ray is perhaps best known for his compelling description of the ‘spear in the chest’ epiphany that shifted his environmental paradigm from old-school compliance to sustainability evangelism.  The many tributes paid this week invariably described Ray as a sustainability leader.

That got me to thinking about what attributes epitomize a “sustainability leader.”

In his own words, Ray provided a “shared higher purpose” to his team at Interface.  He articulated a clear vision, supported by a persuasive rationale.  He communicated a sense of urgency, while describing a clear path of action.  He was consistent in his messaging, and tireless in its delivery, both within Interface and with external audiences.  Ray was willing to take risks, to step out ahead of the crowd, fueled by conviction and determination.  He was sincere, and he was deeply committed.

Consequently, Ray Anderson transformed his company into an industry leader in sustainability, while also inspiring thousands of business people, corporate responsibility practitioners, and ordinary folk through storytelling.

Ray showed us that sustainability leaders don’t have all the answers.  They lead from where they are.  They embrace and enable followers and collaborators, anyone who can help to achieve the sustainability vision.  They are courageous and willing to stand alone.  They find their own voice and leverage their own strengths to distill the complexities of sustainability into a simple, clear vision of the way things are, the way things need to be, and the path between these realities.  They move inexorably forward in the sustainability journey, though it may be a daunting one.  They act.

 

View Ray Anderson’s TED talk here.

Photo of Ray from Interface Global’s website.  Ray’s words, above, quoted from John Elkington’s tribute to Ray Anderson in the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, here.  

Read additional tributes to Ray Anderson here, here, and here.

View Interface’s memorial page and blog here.

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