What started out as corporate philanthropy morphed into social sponsoring, and then by way of Corporate Citizenship turned into Corporate Community Involvement. What started out as Health & Safety expanded to Health, Safety & Environment, and then broadened to become Corporate Social Responsibility with its triple bottom line. It took two to three years of international back and forth, and then the ‘social’ was dropped – the language turned to Corporate Responsibility. Well, then the issue itself became interesting to governments and NGOs – they wanted *their* corporate responsibility … only, they are not corporations. So, lately we are increasingly talking about *organization sustainability*. How can an organization be sustainable – economically, environmentally, and socially with employees and with all other (human) stakeholders?
Interestingly, what motivates people tends to be an appreciative rather than a punitive approach: not “you must be less bad”, but “you can actually have fun and make good money by being good!” That’s what the Lohas want, and that’s what ‘Cradle to Cradle’ (McDonough/Braungart) is about – one of the most important books currently around. Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a good two hours with Michael Braungart, one of the visionary brains behind the concept.
Prof. Braungart is certainly driven by a sense of urgency which fuels him into considerable speed in thinking, convincing, inventing and implementing.
Prof. Braungart no longer speaks with companies about Corporate Responsibility. He is not about ‘sacrificing performance for going green’ and also happily takes environmental NGOs out of their comfort zone. Rather, he engages with companies in provocative conversations about Innovation Management to create a ‘beneficial footprint’. Prof. Braungart challenges companies into creating breakthrough innovation that eliminates the concept of waste and pollution altogether. Such product innovation starts with e.g. edible underwear or the first Ford car made from cradle-to-cradle materials. Going even further, he paints the picture of innovatively changing whole companies around new business models. I’m intrigued with that, because if you have e.g. three people in a company ‘getting’ what an innovative, cradle-to-cradle business model could look like and they want to go for it, how do they take an organization of 50,000 or 90,000 people along – people that are potentially attached to the ‘old ways’? What communications and engagement processes will they need? How can everybody take part, get excited, contribute own ideas, co-own the concept? How does the whole organization need to be redesigned? Corporation 2020 (www.corporation2020.org) is looking into that.
This is about not just running with the profits and outsourcing risks around disposing of products to society. This is about companies selling services rather than products – they sell/lease the use of their products and take them back after a while, be it cars, TVs, computers, windows, carpets … and then make sure those get re-introduced into a non-harmful closed-loop cycle of updating, upgrading, re-using. Or whatever cannot be taken back can safely be thrown into nature, as it will consist only of non-harmful biological nutrients.
Interface did it, and they were among the first: a company that made industrial carpets from oil that were in use for 10 years and then thrown out to rot in landfills for the next 20,000 (!) years is now well on its way towards zero negative effects on the ecosystem by 2020 – *and* gaining market share on the way! A lot of companies are interested in following suit – Akzo Nobel, BASF, Ciba-Geigy, Degussa, Ford, SC Johnson, Philips, P&G, Unilever (to name just a few) have all started looking into this.
Cradle to Cradle is not about focusing on problems. It is about focusing on gratifying solutions that are good for the customer – good for the environment – and good for the company. Let’s see how language will continue to develop – I would not mind seeing the notion of Corporate Responsibility disappearing, being replaced e.g. by a notion of ‘Business Innovation for the 21st century’, created by ‘Organizations for the 21st century’.