Nine sustainability challenges and opportunities, by Pankaj Arora

If you have read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig, you will know what “quality” is – not as a characteristic, but as an inherent value. To embed that value of quality into sustainability is by far the biggest challenge any company in any sector can face. We can produce huge sustainability reports with huge reams of data lacking quality. But what good is that?

We need to understand that the sustainability challenge is more of quality than of quantity.

One, sustainability cannot sit in a silo or in isolation. To be most effective, it needs to be integrated within the business model where functional areas within the company have to pass through the sustainability check-point.

Two, we keep hearing the importance of senior leadership buy-in for sustainability to be a success in an organization. That’s true to kick start the initiatives initially but the buy-in soon needs to seep deep down into the culture so that sustainability not only survives but thrives despite the leadership change.

Three, the challenge is not technological as much as political. This hinders the uptake of cross-sector sustainability thinking.

But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. So here’s a list of 9 real challenges and the innovation opportunities.

Challenges & Opportunities

  1. The challenge is to find new ways of capturing values and income streams. But it’s also an opportunity to create service-led business models rather than product-oriented ones.
  2. The challenge is to develop a sustainable product portfolio via design for environment strategies. But it is also an opportunity to use Biomimicry, Dematerialization and Cradle to Cradle thinking in product development.
  3. The challenge is to bring a culture change within the organization and across the entire sector. But it is also an opportunity to frame the genesis of sustainability thinking in a particular sector.
  4. The challenge is to communicate sustainability initiatives to various stakeholders. But it is also an opportunity to become open to scrutiny and thus building further trust.
  5. The challenge is compliance with disclosures, norms and standards. But it is also an opportunity for innovative technologies and frugal engineering.
  6. The challenge is to define industry specific metrics and the necessary tools to measure and improve. The opportunity is to forge partnerships with players that once were outside the scope of enterprise thinking.
  7. The challenge is to create an environmental accounting balance sheet because of its complexity with lot of grey areas in between. The opportunity is to understand your firm’s negative as well as positive external impacts.
  8. The challenge is to incorporate sustainable behaviour into employee compensation. The opportunity is the inevitable culture change.
  9. The challenge is to get the supply chain on board to change towards more sustainable business practices. The opportunity is the future value generated because of the cascade effect.

Collaboration across sectors is going to be the key in future. I had blogged in my earlier post about the need to reward not any single company on sustainability, but rewarding multiple companies across sectors that come together for a common sustainability goal. Challenges will always be there. The question is whether we are able to convert them into opportunities for sustainable growth.

Pankaj Arora blogs at Linking Sustainability.

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