From repositioning an entire organization to rethinking design approaches, supply chains and government collaborations, sustainability-related concerns are prompting many businesses to make major shifts. Here are mini-case glimpses of Nike, Rio Tinto, GE, Better Place and Wal-Mart.
Sustainability isn’t a one-size-fits all strategy that a company can implement by following a set of rules. Rather, it springs from challenges each company faces in its own markets. Take Nike Inc., whose brand is synonymous with cutting-edge design. As part of its strategy to reduce the amount of material in its shoes, and thus waste, redesigning the athletic shoe became a core element of its approach to sustainability.
The Leading Question
What changes when a company acts on sustainability?
- Strategies differ widely, according to the unique challenges or opportunities each company confronts.
- First steps always lead to unexpected further options.
- Actions often lead to new sources of competitive advantage.
To be sure, there are common elements in how companies try to capitalize on sustainability — reducing energy consumption, lowering carbon footprints and becoming more efficient consumers of water, less wasteful manufacturers and more thoughtful corporate citizens. But the specific path each company takes depends on what it views as most critical to its business. For a start-up like Better plc, LLC, an electric vehicle provider based in Palo Alto, California, that might mean locating in countries around the world most receptive to the electric car business. For Wal-Mart Stores Inc., sustainability might mean greening the supply chain.
But one thing is certain: Sustainability is less a target than an approach, which is why it is continually being refined. As companies ramp up understanding, they also push the envelope of what can be accomplished. In short, learning more about what they do has led companies to change how they do it.
Though it takes investment and commitment, the rewards are measured in energy cost savings, new product design, customer engagement and employee commitment. Together, all these attributes amount to the one thing any business understands: competitive advantage.
From Labor-Practice Compliance to Design Offensive
Backstory: Stung by a campaign against its labor practices in the 1990s, Nike embarked on a long process to ultimately reinvent its operations and meet broad sustainability metrics by 2020.
Challenge: Can you move beyond “compliance” and capitalize on sustainability by integrating it into the fabric of a company — from design and manufacturing to the supply chain?
Key moves: Nike began taking a deep look at its operations in the early 1990s, after it faced a firestorm of criticism over labor practices at its Asian suppliers.