If your sustainability strategy is three or more years old, time to chart a new course with a refreshed, ambitious Sustainability Vision.

Around the globe, we are facing unprecedented sustainability issues. From resource constraints and scarcity to the unpredictable forces of climate change, rising income inequality and public expectations, enterprises of all kinds are navigating challenging, and often stormy waters. Surprisingly, many companies set sail poorly prepared for this dynamic environment.

In contrast, leading companies invest time in charting their course to understand the ever-changing forces they may encounter. They prepare and provision accordingly, never losing sight of their sustainability destination — a safe harbour for themselves and society. Transformational companies know that navigating there successfully means being responsive and adaptive along the way: when to raise the sails, when to trim them, when to wait for optimal conditions and when to prevail.

Navigating to a sustainable North Star

Leading companies adopt New Sustainability Visions to stay relevant and thrive. They shift their approach from improving upon today’s business model to imagining what a different, truly sustainable company would like look in the future. Then they make this destination their North Star. These visionaries deliberately disrupt their own business model, adopting plans to rethink and transform their entire industry. Other shifts include: viewing sustainability as a trade-off to seeing it as an engine for growth; moving from incremental change to accelerated systemic change at scale; and leaping from modest improvements to bold action.

Companies on the sustainability journey for a decade or more typically evolve their sustainability strategies every five or 10 years. They transition from a mostly operational focus in the early days to a strategic focus on providing sustainability solutions to customers. Today, companies, like Dow below, are setting out to redefine the role of business in society. (See text box.)

Read this case study: Dow Chemical

Today, companies, like Dow, are setting out to redefine the role of business in society. More than 10 years ago, Dow set out to create a culture of safety and operational efficiency. In 2015, their goal was to expand sustainability efforts into products and customer solutions. Their New Sustainability Vision is embodied in their 2025 goal to redefine the role of business in society, as this short video reveals:

From old to bold: creating a new sustainability vision story

The Co-operators Group Limited, a leading Canadian multi-product insurance and financial services co-operative, commissioned this ground-breaking research into the vision stories addressed by leading sustainability companies. Some of the key findings follow.

To prepare for and influence the future, leading companies develop sustainability vision stories. Research reveals that vision stories address:

  • Megaforces: The long-term sustainability mega-forces that will affect the business and its customers and the risks and opportunities that arise (aka the drivers and the business case)
  • Influence: The ways in which the company seeks to both adapt to and influence the sustainability trends
  • Ambition: The vision, what the company means by the vision, and why it is important to the company, its customers and society.

Anchoring visions

Some companies develop corporate visions, while others are sustainability visions. Research reveals that long term, aspirational visions:

  • Focus on the customer to enable their future sustainability
  • Aim to decouple the company’s growth from its environmental impacts, while increasing the company’s positive benefits as it grows
  • Aim to have zero negative impacts and be net positive or restorative
  • Aim to influence / transform the sustainability of the industry, the company’s customers and its value chain up and downstream of its operations
  • Build sustainability into all products; products are solutions
  • Pursue solutions by influencing the sustainability mega-forces that will affect the business, its value chain and its customers
  • Go beyond incremental approaches to transformational approaches, focused on the role of business in society

With a firm hand on the helm, sustainability professionals can help steer the company’s sustainability strategy on an aspirational course. This research can help inform updates to sustainability strategies and visions.

As Dow’s video provocatively asks, “What do you want to be known for?” Do you stay the safe course or make waves, redefining the role of business in society along the way? Disrupting the status quo requires bold action but the future of our planet and humanity – and business – depends on it. With a firm hand on the helm, sustainability professionals and company leaders can help steer the company’s sustainability vision on an aspirational, transformative course. Are you aboard?


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