3 Takeaways: Sustainable Excellence by Cramer and Karabell

Aron Cramer, President and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, will join us for a Future of Green Open Conference Call on February 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET (10:30 p.m. PT) to talk about his recent book Sustainable Excellence.

We're in the age of information. Currently, there is a host of rich material from many directions helping us understand what can be done to make business become more sustainable. For instance, sustainable product innovations, musings on the purpose of business, evolving definitions of sustainability, management and change strategies, case studies of success (not much about failure), new technology approaches and more.

To help digest the materials we get through and to encourage you to engage with us in this thinking, we're going to do periodic, brief "book reports" (although not everything we discuss will be a book!)  The reports will provide three personal takeaways from the resource — three things that helped to advance and clarify thinking, direct action, improve explanations, or make connections. (You can also follow our thought-stream via our bookmarks, tweets, and this blog.)

This is the first of the Three Takeaways series featuring Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World, a 2010 book by Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell. This is a convenient place to start because Aron Cramer will join us next week for a Future of Green Open Conference Call. Please join the call next week to continue the discussion.

Here are three of my takeaways from his book.

Takeaway 1: The Importance of Green Leaders in Leading Companies

I believe we are in the early part of an adoption curve that we hope will lead to widespread realization that "sustainability is good business." The first movers on this curve were small, not-too-well-known, but innovative and risk-seeking companies (think of Stonyfield, Interface, Seventh Generation and others). However, in order to continue a march up the adoption curve we need some of the large engines of the economy to adopt and more importantly, explain the motivations for their adoption. Cramer and Karabell highlight GE's Jeff Immelt and Walmart's Lee Scott as examples of leaders of the larger.  They then take this thinking beyond the iconic companies and suggest that, because of operating and ownership advantages, emerging nations may offer new opportunities for leadership highlighting examples including China Mobile, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, and a Brazilian stock exchange.

Takeaway 2: We Have to Talk About What We're Doing

Cramer and Karabell, with a hat tip to Marc Gunther, explain "CEOs take cues from what other prominent CEOs are doing: a green domino effect occurs when high-profile leaders step forward." But, in order for the green dominoes to start falling, business leaders must do more than lead their companies in a sustainable direction. We need them to also talk about what they are doing and influence others.

I periodically re-read Lee Scott's 2005 speech, delivered shortly after catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, when he explained his motivation for Walmart's environmental focus. He said, "A light bulb came on for me [...] We should view the environment as Katrina in slow motion. Environmental loss threatens our health and the health of the natural systems we depend on."

These messages from respected managers, investors and academics, will help guide the way for later movers up the adoption curve. Clay Shirky describes the importance of this "shared awareness" in his book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky highlights three levels of social awareness – "when everybody knows something, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows." Regarding the mutual importance of business and sustainability, we are still working on the first level, but our direction is clear.

Takeaway 3: Corporate Mission Matters (and is possible)

I've been struck several times recently by the potential for businesses acting on a compelling corporate mission to encompass and advance sustainability. On a recent Future of Green call we heard Maurice Bechard describe how Diversey's corporate purpose "to save lives, protect the planet, transform our industry" has helped guide their sustainability efforts. Cramer and Karabell explain how corporate mission creates new perspectives that allow companies like Nike and air conditioning company, Broad, to imagine new possibilities, approaches and products. In Broad's case the new vision imagines "employees a generation hence to be designing and building cool buildings rather than selling units to cool them." What is not yet clear to me is how to motivate a company without such a mission to adopt and live one.

What did you take away from Sustainable Excellence?  What else should we be reading, watching, or listening to? Email us at  business@edf.org with ideas or suggestions.