How to become a sustainable superstar

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Man revealing shirt with recycle symbol

People, planet, profit. I think it's time to update the Triple P. The triad's balance is off, because the profit factor does not measure up anymore. Making a profit is important, yes, even essential – but it causes entrepreneurs to concentrate entirely on the business outcome. Working with a purpose, that is the true driver of sustainability and organisational change.

Entrepreneurs should focus on their purpose. Money is not a goal in itself, it is a catalyst for positive change. Jan Raes Jan Raes Sustainability advisor

Sustainability in five steps

In my role as a sustainability consultant with ABN AMRO, I am often asked: what is the essence of sustainability? I believe the answer can be found in being aware of how you are interacting with the world around you. In everything you do. That way, your vision includes more than the finish line, showing you the most sustainable route to get there. The message this communicates is invaluable. But how do you become such a sustainable superstar? Get there in five easy steps.

Step 1: Focus on the process

A company that's working with the right intentions weighs the pros and cons. This mode of operation is not merely motivated by profit: often, 'the right thing' is also the expensive thing. But it can also attract new investors and clients. That is why entrepreneurs should focus on their purpose. By doing so, they will realise that money is not a goal in itself, it is a catalyst for positive change.

Take, for example, the ship recycling sector, where workers dismantle enormous ships on the beaches of South-east Asia. The more reusable steel, the better. However, for a successful outcome, we require more than just the cash that the scrapped ships provide. The current recycling process exposes the workers to unacceptable health risks, and causes damage to the local environment. The pros of extracting the steel ought to be cancelled out by the negative effects on man and nature.

If the ship recycling sector were to start focusing on the process, the area and the local community could actually benefit from the industry. The trend in this sector is to say goodbye to the old demolishing methods; those shipyards that are operating sustainably are rewarded with a growing base of shipping company clients. A fresh approach to the process, that is where being a company with a sustainable mission starts.

Step 2: Compel your stakeholders with your story

Sustainability is all about shifting behaviour in times of transition. A company with the right message is capable of encouraging that behavioural change. You could see your purpose as a good story, that has to be told the right way. A story is only compelling if it strikes a chord with listeners, and makes them feel involved. This is often achieved by telling the story from several perspectives. Also called social marketing, this discipline is the engine behind sustainability.

One example is home insulation. A sustainable plan, but home-owners are often put off by the hassle of the installation. No one likes a dirty and dusty house. The case is aimed at lowering the energy bill, but it is equally important to provide alternative accommodation and to make sure the house is clean when the family moves back in. People are keen on their comfort, and weigh the sustainable pros of home insulation against the inconvenience.

So, motivate your stakeholders, by compelling them with your story, and reassuring them that their convenience is high on the priority list. You could even consider having stakeholders actively participate in developing your plan: if change is what you want, cooperation is a proven success factor in any business case.

Step 3: Provide appealing role models

WakaWaka is a company I admire. Their mission is to replace kerosene lamps by solar-powered ones: cleaner, safer and healthier. And maybe even cheaper. WakaWaka's strategy is to have celebrities promote their products. Former president Bill Clinton, environmental activist Al Gore, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; they have all demonstrated their support to this sustainable lamp. WakaWaka knows that these role models help the company fulfil its mission. After all, people are sensitive to imitation: since being unique is incredibly difficult, imitation is a much safer route. When influential people recommend your product, your chance of success significantly increases.

But let’s look closer to home as well. Ordinary people, after all, do not always identify with celebrities. The opinions of people like you and me, without spectacular political careers, can inspire society. As a sustainable superstar, it is important to find role models who are people-persons and can get the message across.

Step 4: Don't forget the little things

The most expensive way to initiate change is to pay out bonuses. Besides, bonuses tend to strengthen fixed behaviour patterns. Small gestures and fairness go a much longer way.

A reward can be as simple as a talking litter bin, fitted with sensors and hardware to make it say 'thank you' when you throw in some litter. Cities with such bins see an increase in the percentage of waste collected. A humorous touch in exchange for a change of behaviour: it may be a small reward, but you can get a lot done this way.

Fairness is key in conveying the right message to our stakeholders. Imagine solar panels are for sale for subsidised prices, and then suddenly the subsidy is withdrawn. People will temporarily stop buying these solar panels, because they feel it is unfair that others paid less for the exact same panels. Policy makers often overlook the social effects of subsidies, and do not factor them into their plans.

Step 5: Stay curious

As we become more advanced, many professions are at risk of becoming obsolete at some point. Professionals in these areas may start holding back or obstructing change out of fear for the future. If we want our society to succeed in the long term, we should treat occupational shifts like this as separate issues. For example, those who work in the oil industry should be the first to know about the possibilities of renewable energy.

For successful change, curiosity as to how a situation can be improved is a primary psychological requirement. To quote Einstein: 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.'

We need room to experiment if we want a sustainable future. In the nineteenth century, the oil sector became firmly established by continuous testing and countless mistakes. Now that our society knows how to use oil, it is time to take the next step: learning how to harness renewable energy sources. Do we want to build cars? Then let us think about the possibilities of flexible solar panels and solar paint. It is almost scary to think of oil – by now a dated discovery – remaining the basis of our future. The best is yet to come!

Admittedly: easier said than done

Creating realistic expectations about change and sustainability is a vital priority. The strategic transition that our bank and many other companies are going through requires money, time, and know-how. Additionally, a certain degree of wisdom is needed to adjust to a model where stakeholders' needs are the prime mover. An activist vision focuses solely on the shortcomings of existing systems, and that can be constricting; too much activism can paralyse change.

True sustainable superstars take a mild approach, and stick to their purpose. Their greatest goal is to enable positive change, to the long-term benefit of society and the companies they work for. That conviction in itself is a source of motivation, so much more so than figures and business cases.

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