Systemic Change Required: A Comprehensive Sustainability Strategy is a Leading Business Strategy

Jan 18, 2012 8:00 AM ET

Reflecting on 2011, we at The Natural Step Canada are struck by the year's events that illustrate the global sustainability challenge and the growing sentiment that systemic change is required. To name but a few…

The Arab Spring saw revolution and widespread protest across the Middle East in an effort to combat dictatorship, concentration of wealth and power in few hands, corruption, human rights violations, economic decline, unemployment, and rising food prices.

The United States experienced a record of more than $12 billion of weather disaster-related damage, showing the real and immediate costs of extreme weather related to our changing global climate.

The earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear meltdown in Japan prompted worldwide debate about whether nuclear power should be part of our energy mix in a sustainable future.

And, of course, the Occupy Movement demonstrated a democratic awakening that addresses corporate greed, a growing disparity of wealth, inadequate financial regulation, and corporate influence on politics.

The circumstances that preceded each of these events may seem disparate, but the responses show a growing awareness that a systemic approach will be required to achieve the desired social changes. For example, to develop solutions to the climate change issue, democracy, human rights, and energy issues will all be implicated. In other words, everything is interrelated.

Now is the time to move beyond the outdated notion of “corporate social responsibility”, where compliance, philanthropy, and risk mitigation leave organizations vulnerable and reactionary. A comprehensive sustainability strategy, on the other hand, allows a company to proactively capture opportunities that include: lower costs for energy and waste management; easier access to capital and leading talent; the development of new products; greater market share; lower insurance premiums; increased innovation; and more. It provides a way to deal with interrelated issues and capture the subsequent value created.

A number of our partners took bold steps in 2011 to identify and address the root causes of unsustainability in their businesses, and—in doing so—have created shared value for their businesses, employees, communities, and the environment.

The Co-operators Group built on their impressive past performance by working with The Natural Step Canada to develop an insurance product assessment tool that helps determine how insurance products can contribute to a transition toward sustainability. They hosted another inspiring IMPACT! Youth Conference for Sustainability Leadership. As a testament to their leadership in sustainability, The Co-operators were named the best corporate citizen in Canada by Corporate Knights magazine, improving on their number two ranking in 2010.

Executive-level commitment to sustainability at Pratt & Whitney Canada has led to tremendous energy around their sustainability initiatives. The Natural Step Canada conducted a capacity-building workshop with a group of internal sustainability champions, which has resulted in the creation of ambitious strategic goals to move the organization toward sustainability.

Edmonton’s Landmark Group of Builders has made significant strides toward sustainability, launching a solar division of the company and recently opening a manufacturing plant that drastically reduces waste and emissions in the construction of new dwellings. They have continued to build capacity among their internal Sustainability Champions Team and are exploring new development opportunities with a sustainability lens.

Also based in Edmonton, ISL Engineering and Land Services continues to engage its group of internal sustainability leaders to further integrate sustainability into decision-making, products, and services throughout the organization.

In 2012, we will continue to encourage our partners through our Service Path for Sustainable Business, helping them move toward sustainability and capture the associated value on the top and bottom lines. We will also launch a new Sustainability Transition Lab initiative, an innovative multi-stakeholder approach to systemic change toward sustainability. This project will help to build shared understanding of the systemic sustainability challenges in a given sector among diverse stakeholders, develop a vision of a sustainable future for that sector, build deep commitment to change toward that vision, and enable stakeholders to work together to create solutions to overcome those shared challenges.

As always, we continue to seek out ambitious, forward-thinking organizations that want to establish a position of sustainability leadership in their sector. Please contact us to learn more about how The Natural Step Canada’s Sustainable Business Program can translate the fundamentals of sustainability into innovation and value creation, positioning your company for success in a rapidly changing economy.

Best wishes for a prosperous and more sustainable 2012!

Chad Park is the Executive Director of The Natural Step Canada, a non-profit sustainability organization that delivers leading consulting and education services. He was recently honoured as one of Canada's Clean16—the 16 individuals in Canada who have done the most to advance the cause of sustainability and clean capitalism. For more on The Natural Step Canada, please visit