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The sustainable model we already have

3 min read

Strategy

Today’s guest post is by Gregory Unruh, professor of global business at Thunderbird School of Global Management and author of
“Earth, Inc.”

Business sustainability is here to stay. In fact, a recent GreenBiz survey shows it’s even countercyclical, with over 85 percent of companies committing to maintaining or even increasing their sustainability investments in 2010 despite the economic downturn. With all that enthusiasm and investment, you’d think executives must have sustainability figured out. They don’t.

When executives talk about sustainability, the No. 1 metaphor used is that of a “sustainability journey.” An expedition into uncharted territory that could lead anywhere. But as the old saying goes, “if you don’t know where you are going, any heading will do.” What I argue in my book is that business leaders need a clear path towards sustainability. And we have one.

There is only one model of a sustainable manufacturing system that operates on scales and timeframes that coincide with markets. Despite some close calls, it’s been operating sustainably for 3.5 billion years, incessantly innovating and producing some of the most miraculous creations known. What is this sustainable wonder? The Earth’s Biosphere.

The truth is, the biosphere is the only model of sustainability we have. All we need to do is decipher the principles that account for its sustainability, translate them for business and splice them into the corporate DNA.

“Earth, Inc.” translates these laws of nature and sets out 5 principles — aptly named the biosphere rules — that executives can use to steer their companies toward sustainability. Perhaps the most basic of these is to shift away from established value-chain thinking toward value-cycle thinking. Many companies talk about creating closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle manufacturing systems but these efforts often founder on the economics of trying to take an existing value chain and bending it around on itself. Instead, building a value cycle requires putting foundational steps in place that assure the process is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. For the successful adopters of the biosphere rules, nature’s principles of sustainable manufacturing are a matter of “embed it and forget it”.

Once companies clearly identify their goals and where they want to arrive, we will see rapid progress in business sustainability. The best navigator for captains of industry is their mother – Mother Earth.

Does HR have a role in creating sustainability business cycles? What role do you place in these initiatives at your company?

Image credit,  janrysavy, via iStock