Harvard Business Review Discusses Leadership and the Environment


Mainstream businesses are embracing sustainability initiatives. You probably knew that. But did you stop to consider the motives behind such initiatives? Look at the words of Michael Potts, chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Institute, the self-described entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization focused on the efficient and restorative use of the world's natural resources:

Companies that are successful with sustainability initiatives are lead by executives who have a personal passion for these issues, leaders who lead with a moral imperative. And, sometimes these executives make decisions to do the right thing even when the payback alone does not justify them.

Potts was discussing companies that green their supply chains, and he was doing so on Harvard Business Review's Green blog, which bills itself as "A Discussion about Leadership and the Environment." Simple, huh? Nothing more than a run-of-the-mill conversation.
In fact, it is more than a run-of-the-mill conversation. Why? Because it's happening on a mainstream business website, and contributors to the blog include executives from Sun Microsystems, Herman Miller, General Electric, and Yale School of Management, among others. Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs is one of the site's sponsors. (Aside from "You Are Only As Green As Your Supply Chain," topics covered on the blog, which has been up and running since January 2008, include "Green Stakeholders: Pesky Activists or Productive Allies," "Staying Green in a Tough Economic Climate," "Winners and Losers in a Carbon-Constrained World," and "Don't Bother with the 'Green' Consumer.")

The point is that mainstream American businesses are finally waking up to the fact that sustainability matters, and not just from a bottom-line business perspective. Sure, money is part of it, as it must be for any business that hopes to remain a functioning, in-the-black enterprise. But there's more going on here. As Brian Walker, CEO of furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, puts it, his company initiated its Perfect Vision environmental program in 2003 "because we believed it was the right thing to do and because we saw the potential for a clear business benefit."

Similarly, but on a much larger scale, Wal-Mart president and CEO Lee Scott recently announced that the company is going to require its suppliers to meet specific environmental, social and quality standards, and it will make compliance with those standards part of all its contracts. Now, a cynic might question Wal-Mart's motives with the initiative. Is there a PR payoff? Sure. But there are other payoffs as well, only some of which are financial. Heck, perhaps the initiative even allows Scott and his 1.9 million employees worldwide to pursue a path that makes them a little prouder of themselves, their jobs, their place in the world. If Wal-Mart's sales and brand value rises in the meantime, so be it.

As RMI's Potts optimistically puts it in the HBR Green blog, "The winners in this new age... will not be the ones with the calculators and spreadsheets. They will be the courageous thought leaders that drive their businesses forward in line with their personal values." Well said, and reflective of a trend. A trend whereby corporations are embracing sustainability programs because their customers expect it, the market rewards it, and yes, their leaders and employees actually believe it matters.

Rocky Mountain Institute is a non-profit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources so that companies, govenrments, and organizations are more efficient, make more money, and do less harm to the environment.

Image credit::"© iStockphoto.com / René Mansi"