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Laurens de Lange, Sustainability Consultant

 

Sustainability today has much more meaning in our society than it had 100 or 50 years ago. These days it is related to many topics, such as CO2-emissions, material-use, marketing, energy-efficiency, mindset, and so on. 100 or 50 years ago our industries were not as polluting as they are now. Simply because we did not produce as many as we are now. Acting and being sustainable became more important and a state of emergency because research showed mankind is over-polluting and over-using the planet, which eventually leads to an increasingly smaller habitat for us humans.

One of the elements which caused this is mass production of goods to fulfill our current needs of consumerism. The ‘limitless need for raw materials’ and ‘endless growth of our economy’ made us believe this is more important than the environmental limitations and social values. The result is that we head for an unlivable world.

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Mission (im)possible?

What is being 100 percent sustainable? I don’t believe the biggest global brands have the answer to this question. In parts of the world there is a sense of urgency, which is an important first step to make a change. Without this urgency, nothing will change. In my believe our entire economic system needs to change to become sustainable. This means all brands need to make their decisions considering the values of people (social), planet (environmental), profit (economical). As long as they make their decisions on profit and consider the people and planet as ‘nice to haves’ we are doomed.

Where does Sustainability start? 

First of all, the CEO’s of these brands need to show leadership and adjust their current vision, strategy, and business model to a truly sustainable one. But of course, it does not end there. I believe we need to change the system of how we are rewarded in business. For most of us, our goals are only related to a number of sales, percentage of profit, and so on. All of these goals are related to the value of profit, but we can create additional goals that are related to our social- and environmental ambitions. This is not new, it is already done by some of the bigger brands.

Second, it is extremely important to share information and exchange knowledge. Why do we make the wrong decision? Because we don’t know what sustainable alternative there is. Sharing this knowledge is therefore important on every level of an organization. Make it easy to share this within your organization and inspire your colleagues at the same time.

And third, we need to continue to create a sense of urgency. Create awareness and make everyone understand they are part of the solution. The time to act is now!

Tricky parts of budgeting

I do not believe sustainability costs extra. On the long-term, it is often proven to be less expensive. This approach is called the ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ (TCO), and it means you look at the total costs of the entire lifecycle of your product or service. This will lead to more durable, easier maintained, less transportation and more circular products and services. The traditional investment method only looks at the start investment instead of the entire lifecycle, and this can lead to additional not accounted costs.

It is possible needed, or maybe unavoidable, to invest in technologies and facilities to become more sustainable. Still, this is considered an investment in the long run to generate business and at the same time be future-proof and sustainable.

In our current era of business, I feel we need to rely more on partnerships. How can you lead your entire industry to sustainability? Can you invest in new technology together with your competitors/partners? I read Levi’s invented a technique called Water<Less® to produce jeans using a lot less water and they open-sourced this innovation. This shows true sustainable leadership.

Sustainability means Responsibility

I do believe we need to understand the situation in underdeveloped countries in the world, whereas acting sustainable is not their priority. Netherlands being my home country I find it important to be an example for other countries, and we should focus on innovations that can help others as well. At the same time, we need to look at the core of the problem. For example plastic and how this is produced, used, and thrown away. By regulation, education and having the right recycling facilities we can solve a big part of the problem.

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