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Sustainability Giants Get a Strong Start in 2016

Over the past several years, I’ve written about the need to see sustainability as a business imperative and pointed to major initiatives by global firms such as Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and the very real benefits they are delivering (not least driving growth and cost efficiency).

Now, a new report from Freya Williams outlines just how big the “sustainability business” has become. The article cites nine so-called “green giants” – of which Unilever is one – generating a billion dollars or more in revenue each year (with Tesla being another of the nine companies, the distinction between revenue and profit is an important one).

With companies as diverse as Chipotle, Ikea, Toyota, Nike and Whole Foods also making the list, this revenue isn’t generated by green products or, I would argue, driven by changing consumer demand (although that surely has its place). Indeed, there are multiple studies that suggest that consumers are turned off by overtly eco-friendly products believing, as a report from the Journal of Consumer Research found, that they are probably getting a product of compromised quality. Instead, the dollars generated by the magic nine companies Williams lists show that big businesses understand how important a sustainable mindset now is to remain in the game. As Williams argues, “sustainability is not about how they save money, but about how they make it.”

And just how they make it begins with a fundamental shift that I have always advocated: by making sustainability an integral part of the company structure, rather than something that sits in a lonely silo. By embedding a culture of sustainability throughout the organization, it puts the imperative on each employee to make sure their actions reflect that culture. This also contributes to another key factor to sustainability success – collaboration. It’s about understanding the impact our actions have and working to smooth out the glitches. Identifying and then mitigating risks. All sound business sense, all tenets of sustainability.

Finally, you may have seen in the news the somewhat surprising claim made by Steve Howard, Ikea’s head of sustainability, that “we have hit peak stuff…peak home furnishings.” While this may have sounded like the ultimate faux-pas coming from an employee of a retailer with aggressive growth targets, it in fact speaks to the way that Ikea is evolving. From a sustainability point of view, which Howard of course should have, it makes total sense: do less with more. Ikea, he explained, is evolving to become circular. Where instead of being thought of as the purveyor of essentially disposable items, they are moving to a position where products can be repaired and recycled. With the success that Ikea has had to date implementing sustainability practices, this move could be great for business and the environment.




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