Building Bridges to a Sustainable Future

Building Bridges to a Sustainable Future

Dr. Jeana Wirtenberg, nationally-recognized expert in organizational change, shares the first of four exclusive excerpts adapted from her new book Building a Culture for Sustainability.

Whether they realize it or not, companies today must choose between two fundamentally different paths: the path of yesterday and unsustainability, and the path of a prosperous and sustainable future for themselves, society, and the planet. We are all immersed in the same profound transformation, from a singular focus on profitability to an integrated triple bottom line: a holistic approach that simultaneously unleashes the talent, creativity, and innovation of people, takes care of our planet, and produces a prosperous future for the generations to come. This triple-bottom-line focus on people, planet, and profits has been talked about for years, ever since John Elkington coined the term in his book Cannibals with Forks in 1998.

Like all companies, the nine profiled in this book need to operate inside the current economic reality, which rewards short-term profits and puts shareholders above all else. Yet these companies consciously choose a sustainable path for themselves, their people, and the planet. Why? And how do they do it? What goes into the choices and decisions they make every day regarding how to run their businesses? What challenges do they face? What lessons have they learned?

This book tells the rich and authentic stories of why and how these nine successful global companies, from a wide cross section of industries and sectors, are making the transition to the triple bottom line in the emerging green economy. I describe how they are contributing to, and benefiting from, this transition. I share their struggles, their challenges, their successes, and the lessons they are learning on the journey to sustainability.

My intention in writing this book is to provide inspiration and practical ideas for people in all organizations—small, medium, and large companies; nonprofits; and public and educational institutions. I invite each person reading this book to say aloud, “If they can do it, so can I!” Take note of ideas that may be a fit for your organization, or even kernels of ideas on which you can build a foundation for your own journey to sustainability.

Setting the Context: The Urgent Need for Systemic and Holistic Change

There is no doubt that today we are experiencing global economic, ecological, and socioeconomic justice problems—financial crises, social unrest, and environmental disasters. Systems thinking tells us that these upheavals are inextricably intertwined. They point to a fundamental lack of sustainability and the urgent need for systemic and holistic change. The time for this change is now, and I choose to be optimistic and believe that the needed changes are not only possible, but already occurring.

Critical is a shift in how organizations are led, are managed, and operate, moving from the single-bottom-line measure of profit to the triple-bottom-line focus on people, planet, and profit. When I speak about sustainability throughout this book, I am referring to much more than going green or engaging in eco-friendly practices; I am speaking about a fundamental and profound redefinition of the purpose, way of being, and way of operating of every function and facet of an organization.

The voices and actions of the nine diverse companies breathe life into this redefinition as they put the triple bottom line into practice, embed- ding it as an intrinsic part of their vision, mission, purpose, policies, practices, systems, and processes. They engage their employees in co-creating a sustainable future for themselves and us all, and in this book, readers will experience the ways in which each company is making its own unique contribution to sustainability, fueled by the passion, hearts, and minds—and just plain common sense—of these employees. Readers will find a multitude of examples of how each of the companies’ people are discovering and implementing sustainable business practices and responding to the marketplace with products and services that meet the needs of tomorrow as well as today.

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The choice is ours. We are at a critical juncture, and there is little time left. All businesses, as well as shareholders, customers, stakeholders, and the citizens of nations, regions, and cities, must choose sustainability and take control of what we have collectively created. This book distills and represents some of the best thinking and recommendations for how we can and must go about doing that.

Building a Culture for Sustainability

Even though 93 percent of CEOs consider sustainability important to their company’s success, most do not know how to embed it into their company. I propose that culture is the missing link here; it is key to accomplishing the shift to a sustainable future in organizations. And for this reason, I chose to focus on organizational culture in this book.

In The Sustainable Enterprise Fieldbook: When It All Comes Together, my colleagues and I described organizational culture as “the shared values, beliefs, and work styles that define what is important to a specific organization,” and note that it “influences acceptable behaviors and practices.”

What does a culture for sustainability look like and how do companies get there? As we will see in the chapters to come, each company defines a culture for sustainability in its own way. Yet there are common threads running through each of these companies’ definitions.

How Do We Get There?

The good news, as evidenced in every chapter of this book, is that culture is fungible. It can change, and business leaders and managers can help shift the balance to sustainable mind-sets and behaviors by influencing their own and others’ belief systems. More good news is that companies don’t need to resort to top-down command and control, coercion, or even peer pressure. People already care about these issues. Companies just need to offer the enabling environment, encouragement, and reinforcement for people to contribute what already resides within them. I wrote this book to provide pathways for organizations of every size, sector, and industry to do just that.

Bridge image via commons.wikimedia.org

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