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Working to Create a Sustainable World

How can a company demonstrate to the world, certainly to its employees, that it is serious about sustainability? According to Peter Senge, the answer is more than a fancy sustainability report. Employees want real evidence. “They see some fancy sustainability report coming out of corporate headquarters, but then they turn around and look at all the junk going into the trash bins, and they just shrug their shoulders and regard the words as nothing more than words.”

Talking about his new book The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, observed that “there is a long way to go, but the era of denial of a problem has ended. Today’s most innovative leaders are recognizing that, for the sake of our companies and our world, we must implement revolutionary—not just incremental—changes in the way we live and work.”

Most different is the effort across borders, both internally and externally. Senge, known for his book The Fifth Discipline, observed, “We all know that most organizations are tremendously fragmented with processes internally across all operational borders, and that people within the same organization have great difficulty collaborating internally. But,” he continued, “for a lot of the really big issues--water, energy, waste and toxicity—it is evident that we have to work across organizational borders for sustainability. More important, companies have to become partners with the same objective, not merely advertise initiatives to win over the public and get and keep customers.”

Corporate initiatives, said Senge, are about the really difficult problems, the ones that aren’t getting solved, like water, which is an acute problem in the world today. Senge observed that there are some places even in the West where access to water remains a problem. “In other places around the world,” he said, “it’s a horrific problem. No company can do anything about that by themselves.”

Building these kinds of partnerships is obviously not easy, said Senge. “These are totally different organizations, and they come from totally different backgrounds. You know, you’ve got a bunch of scientists on the one hand and engineers and marketing people on the other. They don’t relate to each other very well until there’s something that really compels them.”

Critical to the formation of these partnerships is selling the case within the organization. It’s not so much a matter of cost as it is identification of a strategic opportunity. Senge noted how “many companies start the sustainability journey with waste reduction or energy efficiency improvements because they can make an immediate business case.” These are costs they are already paying and so improvements translate directly to the bottom line. But, according to Senge, many firms never go beyond this low-hanging fruit because they fail to summon the courage to face the fact that they are, perhaps, selling the wrong products (such as gas-guzzling cars) to the wrong customers (like rich consumers who should reduce their consumption, not increase it) based on the wrong business model (maximizing the sale of products and hence waste).

The true secret to creating a sustainable world is to look beyond these low hanging fruit and elevate the vision to reach out to new markets, new stakeholders, and new sources of capital to create revolutionary—not incremental—changes to the way we live and work, said Senge.

The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, by Peter Senge (with Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur, and Sara Schley), published by Doubleday, 2008.