3. How can businesses help Canadians become informed, inspired and engaged in a national dialogue about sustainability?
Canada lacks a national identity when it comes to sustainability, and a number of factors are to blame. There is a lack of consumer understanding and engagement: people are confused about the term “sustainability” and how it relates to them: “How do we connect our customers to sustainability?” asked John Page of TELUS. “Most people buy phones based on price and features – not on whether the materials were sourced sustainably or the phone can be recycled after use.”
“The average consumer likely doesn’t know what ‘responsible consumption’ is or how to treat issues like energy holistically,” said Peter MacConnachie of Suncor Energy. “They may realize their car needs gas or their phone battery is dead, but they don’t connect those things to personal behaviours or to broader issues such as the full life-cycle impact of the product and its use.”
There is also a lack of engagement by individual Canadians: “While companies have a responsibility to provide sustainable products and services, consumers also have a role to play when it comes to responsible consumption,” said Luc Robitaille of Holcim. As a 2009 report on Socially Conscious Consumerism revealed, consumers are largely unwilling to buy products or services based on their environmental or ethical features. It’s unclear whether this disinterest in sustainable products is a symptom of a culture obsessed with low price or of an inability to link personal behaviour to societal impacts. Regardless of the cause, the result isn’t encouraging: companies can make all the responsible products they want, but if consumers won’t buy them, nothing will change.
“The average consumer likely doesn’t know what ‘responsible consumption’ is or how to treat issues like energy holistically. They may realize their car needs gas or their phone battery is dead, but they don’t connect those things to personal behaviours or to broader issues such as the full life-cycle impact of the product and its use.”
There is also a lack of national thought leadership related to sustainability. Although environmental advocate David Suzuki has been voted Canada’s Most Trusted Person the last three years in a row, a single person or organization alone cannot shape the collective identity: At a time when the views of pop stars and celebrities garner more attention and credibility than views of scientists and economists, who are thought leaders and what should they be saying?
Canadian companies need help establishing a national dialogue on the issue of sustainability. They envision a citizenry aware of and committed to sustainable living. They wonder what we can learn from cities like Guelph, Ontario or from institutions like the University of British Columbia that have successfully – and legitimately – branded themselves as places in which people care about the environment. What was the catalyst for British Columbia’s citizens forum on first-past-the-post voting and electoral reform? Can we learn from Unilever’s successful spearheading of the Marine Stewardship Council to drive civic engagement? How did countries like England establish a national dialogue around disposal of nuclear waste in the early 2000s? What can we learn from the South African Peace and Reconciliation Council that ended apartheid or Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is addressing the issue of Indian Residential Schools for First Nations people?
“Canada succeeded in making recycling an accepted norm in the home in the late 1990s,” said Debbie Baxter of LoyaltyOne. “What are the tools we can use and the leaders we can engage to ignite people’s commitment to cycling, carpooling or responsible consumption?”
Taking Action: Civic Engagement
In 2013, NBS will help industry leaders tackle the issue of informing and engaging Canadians in the topic of sustainability. With a Guidance Committee consisting of academic experts and Canadian business leaders, NBS will convene forums and engage global Thought Leaders to establish a national dialogue on sustainable business practice. For more information on how NBS convenes industry and academic experts, read the section “Addressing the Challenges."
4. What corporate structures enable companies to deliver on sustainability goals?
Building sustainability into an organization is no easy task. Sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) remains largely siloed in many companies, the responsibility of a single department or even a single employee. Even when sustainability is more widely integrated into companies’ business units, communication remains a challenge: “One of our key challenges is to effectively communicate the company’s vision of sustainability,” said Jane Sadler Richards of LANXESS, “such that everyone, regardless of their role, understands and embraces that vision.” John Coyne of Unilever Canada agreed: “How do you reach the factory workers, sales people and marketing people in a 100,000-person organization? It’s an impressive logistical challenge.”
“One of our key challenges is to effectively communicate the company’s vision of sustainability such that everyone, regardless of their role, understands and embraces that vision.”
Jane Sadler Richards
The quest to spread sustainability throughout a company is further complicated by the movement’s plethora of definitions. Sustainability can mean very different things to different people. Employees have different opinions about how important sustainability is and struggle to understand how it applies to their roles: “In addition to educating and engaging senior executives, we are building sustainability into our product development,” said David Dougall of Research In Motion. “How do we engage our engineers in sustainability-by-design and help them see how it strengthens their work?”
Even if you reach every employee today with your organization’s sustainability message, your work is not finished. Succession and recruitment represent ongoing challenges to a company-wide commitment to sustainability: “It’s difficult to maintain the vision and the momentum for change as people retire or take new positions, or as we hire new employees,” said Jane Sadler Richards.
NBS conducted a comprehensive study on Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture in 2010. The research has been well received by many Canadian organizations large and small, but the process of changing corporate culture does not happen overnight: “It’s difficult to move sustainability forward in a large organization,” agreed Karen Clarke-Whistler of TD Bank. “It’s not hard to have a great idea. It’s hard to execute on that idea – especially in a big company.”
Sustainability is challenging for companies with a franchise model because the lines of authority are weaker between sustainability leaders and store owners, and opportunities for education are harder to consistently apply: “The vast majority of our 4,000+ restaurants are owned and managed by franchisees, not corporate headquarters,” said Tim Faveri of Tim Hortons. “Working with individual restaurant owners to implement sustainability initiatives is paramount. What are best practices for doing that?”