3 Tactics To Use Sustainability to Screw Your Competition

If you’re challenged by a boss, board or business partner who thinks sustainability is a luxury or a trend to revisit in three years, make the business case that doing environmental and social good means beating competitors.

“It’s an imperative that your business start creating good, not just less harm,” says Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender. In his book “The Responsibility Revolution,” Jeffrey shares three tactics that British supermarket chain Marks & Spencer used to turn its skeptical managers into champions for sustainability.

  1. Recognize what matters most to the employees who will be carrying out the program. For Marks & Spencer’s managers in the food division, it was their quarterly numbers they had to hit. They saw new goals for increasing sustainably sourced fish in their stores as diluting their primary functions (and chance at performance-based compensation). Mike Barry, who heads M&S’s sustainability programs, outlined the 16 issues that mattered most to the supermarket chain’s consumers and stakeholders. Each issue had an action and a way to measure progress, giving managers a roadmap for how to carry out these new objectives, expectations for how their performance would be measured and reasons why the objectives mattered to customers, investors and the competition in the first place.
  2. Using graphs, Barry then compared M&S’s performance to its top rivals and pointed out where M&S was lagging. The managers could see that sustainability wasn’t a vague mandate from above. It was something that their customers cared about and that their company was falling behind on.
  3. By starting with one division (food) and tailoring a sustainability program to the specific concerns, pride points and sales metrics of the food division’s managers, Barry was able to tee them up for success. Half a year later, M&S’s other divisions were itching to use sustainability as a competitive tool. Starting small allows you to tailor the program to specific concerns, get feedback, make adjustments and paint it as a privilege that others in the company begin to vy for.

Thirty-four percent of executives surveyed said their firms’ immediate financial goals were a more pressing priority than sustainability and only one in four believe that sustainable business practices can create short-term financial gain (Economist Intelligence Unit). Without Barry to outline how sustainability fit into their specific job functions and how it could help them trounce their competition, M&S’ managers would still be lagging as part of the 34% that believes sustainability is a not-for-me luxury or a nuisance.

You can listen to an earlier interview I did with Jeffrey Hollender here.

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Leave a comment
  1. Giang Biscan March 30, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Olivia, I always like your thought and writing. And I also agree that sustainability is more than just about the warm and fuzzy feeling but also about the bottom line.

    But I have to say though, in a large corporation, it usually has to be something that comes from the top. See how the example you shows, it takes the executives or consultants hired by the executives to have access to the data to do the analysis, and then to be heard. The opportunity is much smaller for it to be drive from the group up. Not that it is not possible, just harder.

    As always, great work, Olivia. Keep going. :)

  2. admin March 30, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    Giang, thanks for your comments. The best situations find employees and executives pushing for a social mission, but, as you point out that’s rare. I agree that in large companies this type of change needs to come from some level of the top–even if it’s from the top of one department, and be pushed up slowly from there. Marks & Spencer did have executive level buy-in (and a designated person) before they brought their departments into their mission, which gave them the authority and resources to great a much stronger program (and to do it much more quickly).

  3. Giang Biscan March 31, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    Very cool! :)