Lessons from GLOBE

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Every two years, Vancouver’s GLOBE Conference brings together thousands of sustainability business leaders, to engage in dynamic conversation about environmental solutions, and identify the top sustainability challenges facing corporations and society. Among those industry leaders in attendance were:

NBS summarizes the top ideas and trends that emerged from the 2014 conference:

Companies Must Connect with Society

Canada needs “consensus on how to develop socially, environmentally, economically,” said David Labistour of MEC. Gord Lambert of Suncor, echoed him: “As a society, we are struggling on how to have dialogue on complex, systems-type problems.”

Without a shared view of sustainability issues, progress becomes difficult and can only be achieved piecemeal. “MEC isn’t talking to government because we don’t believe government can move the dial,” Labistour said. Patrick Daniel, formerly of Enbridge, added: “If the general public wants to drive around in their Hummers and buy large screen TVs, how can they expect corporations to solve the problems of the world?”

How can companies and society connect? Listen and engage, said conference speakers. “We need to grow ears and reduce the size of our tongue,” suggested Warren Allen, president of the International Federation of Accountants. Dayna Baumeister of Biomimicry 3.8, suggested that business “quiet our cleverness.”

For more on connecting with society, see NBS’s resources: Sustainability through Partnerships, Civic Dialogues on Sustainability; and Stakeholder Engagement and Driving Social Change.

Change is Inevitable

Expectations of business will inevitably increase, as consumers and stakeholders put pressure on firms to green their products and operations. Business actions that “used to be great 20 years ago [are] not even acceptable today,” said Goldcorp's Beverly Briscoe.

Such an environment means uncertainty for business. Anthony Hodge of the International Council for Mining and Metals, weighed in on the changing landscape: “Industry says, ‘tell us what the rules are.’ But the rules will change. Environmental regulations will ramp up.”

How can business adjust? Connections with society can keep industry attuned to trends and shifts, but firms must also take a longer-term perspective.

For more on how business can adopt a long-term perspective: an NBS report, to be released this fall, will address “How business can act for tomorrow today” (one of NBS’s top knowledge priorities for 2014).

Employees Care

Sustainability actions lead to a better, more committed workforce. Patrick Daniel recalled that when Enbridge expanded from traditional energy into renewables, “the biggest benefit is that we could hire people we could never hire before. They are the most passionate, engaged employees in the organization. They wouldn’t come to work for us on hydrocarbons….Though sometimes they will transition to hydrocarbons after joining the business.”

Beverly Briscoe saw similar impact when Goldcorp increased its community development activities: “In the mining industry, it’s hard to attract talent. When you [talk about] changing the lives of communities, it does attract new talent.”

For more on how sustainability affects employee recruitment and retention, see “Three Reasons Job Seekers Prefer Sustainable Companies.”

Leadership is Needed — at all Levels of Companies

“There is an environmental literacy gap in the C-suite. Until that’s overcome, you’ll always have a spotty response in parts of the business,” said Henry Stoch of Deloitte Canada. Quantifying sustainability issues can make them more relevant and accessible to senior management, he said.

Some at the conference described younger employees as more progressive in their views on sustainability, calling for them to have greater input in corporate strategy. Patrick Daniel had even hoped to initiate a “reverse mentorship” program at Enbridge, that would have involved employees under 30 advising senior staff. “I couldn’t get it going: old people think they should be telling young people what to do.”

NBS’s project on embedding sustainability in organizational culture provides a template for building sustainability into the organization. NBS is evolving this knowledge through the Embedding Sustainability Working Group (ESWG), a collaboration of researchers and companies. The ESWG presented at GLOBE, and we’ll feature highlights in the next newsletter.

Spinning the GLOBE

“GLOBE provides an important lens on current sustainability thinking,” says Pam Laughland, managing director of NBS. “Our role at NBS is to contribute to that picture and build on it — bringing insights that bridge both public and private sectors.”

We welcome your thoughts. If you attended GLOBE, what did you find meaningful? What should be on the agenda at meetings like GLOBE? Please share your comments below.

  • Hauke

    Maya, I really enjoyed the read. I agree with the need for businesses to connect with society and tackle the complex situations we are facing today. It seems as if sustainability, social entrepreneurship and even the lean management movement are part of a broader societal agenda. Sometimes I feel that we are all talking about the same thing and that those phrases are often just different marketing layers or buzzwords that are a consequence of the changing culture. After all, brands won’t be able to survive without a good reputation in the societal context and with a sheer focus on economic performance. The worldwide interconnectedness and overall complexity are simply to big.

    • Maya Fischhoff

      Dear Hauke,
      Thank you so much for your message. I hope that we are all speaking about the same thing – that might indicate agreement! NBS will soon release a report on long-term thinking that I think speaks to issues of brand survival. The report distinguishes between sustainability actions in terms of how long-term they are. Efficiency actions, for example, tend to have quicker, clearer financial returns. Many social investments are more uncertain and longer-term — very important, but perhaps more challenging for organizations.
      Thank you for sharing your ideas!