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Can the profit motive help businesses go green?

Bob Willard didn't have any intention of rewriting his 10-year-old book The Sustainability Advantage. He just wanted to update some numbers for an anniversary edition. But the Whitby-based author and speaker found things had changed so much in the last decade that The New Sustainability Advantage, published last month by New Society Publishers, turned out to be "about 95 per cent new."
Using case studies and business assessment techniques, the book aims to coach companies into adopting current best practices for sustainability, reducing energy consumption, water consumption, waste and staff turnover. While other environmental advocates lean on people's desires to do good for the planet and future generations, Willard's approach relies solely on building a case that sustainability is good for business. You don't have to believe climate change to take his advice seriously.
"Even setting aside—it pains me to say this—the moral responsibility a company has to be a better steward of the environment and be careful about their social impacts as well, I tried to see what the possibilities are for a company to benefit from hard-nosed business opportunities," says Willard, who worked at IBM Canada for 34 years before becoming an advocate for business sustainability. "The bottom line benefits are higher than they were in the first book. Within three to five years, if a company were to simply do what other companies are already doing, they'd be making 50 to 80 per cent more profit than they're currently making."
Although green technology has certainly gotten better in the last decade, Willard doesn't think it's the defining change—all his proposals utilize existing technology, rather than waiting around for a silver bullet. He figures we have the technology to wean ourselves off fossil fuels right now if we put our minds to it. No, it's attitudes that have changed the most.
"The big difference in the last 10 years is that the world is waking up," he says. Rather than happening at the international and national levels, where leaders have tended to lag behind the electorate in many issues, Willard sees this awakening at the local level. Individuals and communities are increasingly making choices that value sustainability. Whether it's consumption habits, neighbourhood projects or community advocacy, there's much more happening on the ground than ever before.

Many companies have been trying to capture this interest, some a bit too eagerly. But what's come to be known as "greenwashing" is not always motivated by a desire to pull one over on the public.

"Companies get excited about what little things they're doing and do too much publicity about them. But they've been taken to task pretty quickly, by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] especially. The strategy now for a lot of companies is to get their act together internally before they go public on sustainability. The last thing they want is somebody asking one of their employees how things are going and the employee giving them a blank stare."
Companies are making more fuss about their supply chain including the labour and environmental practices of all their suppliers. They're not just asking questions about the product or service they're buying, they're asking about the company as a whole and how it does things. "That can be more important than legislation," says Willard. He mentions Walmart, British Columbia's Vancity and Toronto's Steam Whistle Brewery as companies that have rethought how they manage their supply chains.
On the heels of his book launch, Willard is keynote speaker at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's conference in Toronto this week. With its shrink wrap, plastic clam shells and boxes inside bags inside boxes, the packaging industry is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. "It's become a real irritant for consumers because we have to dispose of it," says Willard.
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