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Collective action on sustainability required, says Forum speaker

SustainAbility executive director Mark Lee delivers his keynote address at the 2013 Power Smart Forum
SustainAbility executive director Mark Lee delivers his keynote address "Collaborating for Change and Impact" at the 2013 Power Smart Forum in Vancouver.

Power Smart Forum keynote urges companies to join forces to tackle challenges

Sustainability: you can't do it all by yourself, and you can't leave it for someone else.

That was the keynote message at last month's Power Smart Forum in Vancouver, where more than 530 delegates gathered to learn the latest about energy efficiency and sustainability.

Participants came from BC Hydro's largest customers in the institutional, industrial, and large commercial sectors. Contractors and suppliers involved in the Power Smart Alliance also attended, many showcasing their services at the Forum Tradeshow.

Sustainable development: a systems problem

The keynote address was delivered by Mark Lee, executive director of the think tank SustainAbility. Lee explored the Forum's theme of "Collaborating for Change and Impact" by drawing from two decades of work with companies such as Coca-Cola, Disney, and Gap.

Lee said in the 40 years since the founding of the modern sustainable development movement, there has been plenty of good news, much from the private sector.

"Sustainability as a concept is mainstreamed. Companies are getting absolutely hyper-efficient. Eco-efficiency targets now get expressed in absolute and science-based terms instead of relative ones," he said.

Examples include Walmart's goal of zero waste, and Ford's consideration of potential climate change impacts in all future product plans.

However, Lee said the ongoing decline in global environmental and social indicators is proof that sustainable development is a systems problem, beyond the reach of what any single institution can do alone.

"Even the fabulous individual best practices that exist aren't connecting, scaling, and replicating fast enough," he said. "Sustainable development requires collective action."

Multi-company industry partnerships help develop sustainability solutions

Lee described how industry groups are connecting to tackle challenges that go beyond their ability to solve — or fund — alone.

One example is the "Zero Discharge of Toxic Chemicals Group", a collaboration of consumer product manufacturers such as Nike, Puma, H&M, and Esprit. In another collaboration, Coca-Cola, Nike, Heinz, Ford, and Procter & Gamble are working to accelerate the development of 100 per cent plant-based plastics.

"Necessity does make strange bedfellows," commented Lee, pointing out that even market adversaries have collaborated to solve sustainability challenges.

Lee says establishing a successful cross-industry partnership requires four key factors:

  • Pre-conditions: a well-formed and integrated sustainability strategy, a plan for collaboration, and a willingness to put your biggest issues on the table (trust);
  • Purpose: collaborations are most effective when they are focused on single issues, and at points in the system where small change can yield big changes in behaviour;
  • Process: patience, internal support, clarity about the accountability of partners;
  • People: assembling the right people with the right skills, and with an atmosphere of transparency and trust.

Lee said sustainability in business began as a risk mitigation strategy, and is now shifting toward a focus on building value. "Sustainable development will reward those leading the way to end the tradeoffs between 'jobs now and environment later,'" he said.

But he said it is also a responsibility, offering stern words for CEOs who ignore sustainability today, leaving it for the next generation of leaders in their company.

"That's usually code for, 'I've got my pension, I can see my retirement,'" said Lee. "It's not good enough. The clock is ticking, time is short, what is your part? This is our legacy, not someone else's."