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Sustainability Is about Long-Term Thinking, Planning & Profitability (Part I)

pax, sara, bluehorse associatesIt occurred to me recently, while working with a client on a particularly sensitive issue, that perhaps we need some reminding about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Internal politics, power plays, word spin, data manipulation, income generation, and KPIs are all part of regular business activity and therefore are naturally also part of a sustainable business. They might sound like negative things, but all of us engage in these activities on a daily basis. They’re part of doing business. They’re an honest look at how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives at work, given that all of our jobs are to forward the mission and vision and goals of the people for whom we work. When it comes down to it, our jobs are to maximize the financial health of the business or organization that we work for. The same goes for sustainability initiatives.

If you work for an NGO or particularly socially-minded company, then it’s a little easier to say that other issues besides money are emphasized in your business. Perhaps the company has a mission statement that includes sharing knowledge, or spreading good business practices, or any number of other admirable goals. But what it boils down to is,  if it doesn’t generate income either through profit-making activities or through fundraising, your business or organization can’t survive and continue to work on its mission.

A Fairtrade Example

A few years ago I was consulting with a company who were considering switching their cocoa supply to fairtrade. I was asked to use my experience and expertise to vet their conversations with suppliers to ensure that they weren’t getting ripped off or caught up in marketing spin. During my interview with them in the earliest stage of the process, I made it clear that although I am a fervent supporter of fairtrade both in principal and practice, and have spent the last 15 years of my life exercising my consumer purchasing power to support fairtrade wherever I find it, I cannot always support it as a business decision.

If a company decides to switch to a fairtrade ingredient, it’s very likely going to cost them more than they’re currently paying. There are ways to minimize those new costs – a process which can often be  revolutionary to a company’s purchasing process – but that’s really the point of fairtrade – to change the way the world does business (besides also guaranteeing fair wages for the workers and farmers who grow and process the ingredient in question). However, if a fairtrade ingredient’s additional cost burden is going to be passed along to the consumer – who could potentially turn away from the product and perhaps the entire brand because of the extra cost – then it’s not an intelligent business decision. No matter how much you believe in fairtrade and no matter how much you want to support fairtrade, running your business and your brand into the ground over the course of a few years is not an intelligent decision, no matter how you look at it.

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