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Changing the System: The Top 10 Sustainability Challenges for Canadian Business in 2013

Low-hanging fruit have been picked. It’s time for leaders to raise the bar, reach high and wide, and create innovative sustainability opportunities.

Going Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit

Canadian business leaders have reached a pivotal moment in their sustainability efforts. For many organizations, the period of low-hanging sustainability fruit is over. It is now time for leaders in the Canadian marketplace to create innovative sustainability opportunities.

In September 2012, NBS’s Leadership Council met to identify the top sustainability challenges for business. Their key take-home: addressing sustainability today requires looking beyond the organization.

Working at a System Level

With many operational and technical improvements already achieved, companies now face more formidable challenges. “We already have a business with a small environmental footprint, so it’s increasingly difficult to find ways to further reduce our impact,” said Debbie Baxter, Chief Sustainability Officer for LoyaltyOne.

Business leaders are faced with the challenge of educating individuals about responsible consumption – at a time when consumer appetites seem insatiable. They want to engage more effectively with government bodies – but don’t know the engagement approach that will ensure success. They feel the need to test new business models but struggle to reconcile risk-taking innovation with investors’ demands for quarterly returns. They see opportunities to effect industry-wide change but can’t convince sectoral competitors to work together.

The 10 Sustainability Challenges For Canadian Business in 2013

  1. How can businesses contribute to effective, integrated public policy on the right issues?

  2. How can companies best engage value chain, industry and NGO partners to achieve sustainability goals? (See resulting manager’s guide to partnerships)

  3. How can businesses help Canadians become informed, inspired and engaged in a national dialogue about responsible consumption? (See resulting best practices guide and business briefing)

  4. What corporate structures enable companies to deliver on sustainability goals?

  5. How can companies keep their long-term sustainability agenda on track despite leadership changes?

  6. How should companies navigate issues regarding Aboriginal rights and entitlements?

  7. How can Canadian organizations become more innovative?

  8. How can companies embed social license to operate into their strategy?

  9. How can business and society prepare effectively for the impacts of climate change?

  10. How can companies respond to the proliferation of voluntary and mandatory reporting requirements?

Answering Questions with Research

NBS commissioned research to investigate two of these questions.

#2: Multi-Sector Partnerships

Effective collaboration can help accelerate sustainability across a value chain or industry. Companies can do everything possible to improve their environmental and social impacts within their operations, but their absolute measure of sustainable performance depends upon the actions of suppliers, distributors and all other members of their value chains. “Big brands need to share best practices and solve mutual sustainability problems,” said Tim Faveri of Tim Hortons. “If other organizations see no value in collaborating – and they’re buying from the same suppliers as us – how can we advance the sustainability agenda?”

NBS commissioned a year-long research project in response to this challenge. Read the resulting Executive Report (22 pages) and Systematic Review (110 pages) on Sustainability through Partnerships.

#3: Civic Dialogue

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.

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 three years in a row, a single person or organization cannot shape 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?

NBS commissioned a year-long research project in response to this challenge. Read the resulting Best Practices Guide (45 pages) and Business Briefing (17 pages) on Civic Dialogue


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