What will [y]our eco legacy be?

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  • Date January 29th, 2011 15:27
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  • Let's kick this door in with a bang; our economic activity cannot be sustained by the planet we live on. It's a kind of 'umph' moment, one that both dulls the mind and enrages it at the same time. It's a cold hard fact that we would still need two or three additional earths to go on living the average eco lifestyle we seek to live. Average as in making some effort in switching off eco lightbulbs, carrying your own shopping bag around, maybe even the occasional carbon offset for your flight to holiday land.   That is why we hear all that noise about being sustainable, being eco conscious. The only way we can ensure the continuation of human activity on this planet, and to ensure we 'live' and not merely survive, is for our future activities to be in harmonious sync with our planet. Some (read GIGA) even dare to raise that bar higher, and demand our future activities to be of restorative nature as to undo the damage done.

 In either case, such a sustainable future needs leaders with vision. Design professionals wanting to be among those leaders need to plan ahead to ensure that their sustainability efforts survive their tenure. Here's a quick guide as to make a culture of sustainability the legacy you leave for your company and/or portfolio.

 Leadership. Does it not sound so 'in charge' already? Leadership in the current business landscape is about small groups of single-minded decision makers setting a vision for their organization and defining the processes which will enable them to assure its success. But leadership is not a science. There are no universal laws dictating or conditioning the achievement of such pre-determined goals with any degree of certainty. Hence your bookstore is flooded with 'how-to' tips atop the 'leadership for dummies' shelves. Everyone has their two cents on how you can repeat a perceived successful leadership model. Most of these books - in my view - miss the mark by a landslide. Leadership is about dealing with change, uncertainty and unpredictability. The real bottom line in that story is not the dollars, euro's or rmb's, nor the margins, bonuses and stock value. It is about sustainability. When I talk about sustainability I am using it on a number of levels. There is the personal level, which means sustaining psychological and physiological health. There is sustainability in terms of creating, or being a part of, a work environment that encourages collective responsibility for success of all stakeholders – including employees, and as such their families, which in terms becomes the community. Then there is sociological and ecological sustainability, playing a responsible role in that community, and looking after the community's environment. Sustainability under those set of words now became quite the mouthful, didn't it? Too few of us understand it this way, and focus only on being nice to the trees and saving the cute animals (while eating the ugly ones). We need to develop leaders who embody this broader vision. That is, we need more of us to step up and develop themselves to become such visionaries. Leaders motivated by a concern for human sustainability will be those that understand that one of the many outcomes from such a concern is higher performance. They will be the leaders who treat employees as resourceful humans, rather than human resources. Having a sense of 'larger purpose' is the fundamental hallmark of sustainable leadership. It addresses questions such as the kind of society leaders want to create for future generations. What kind of organization they want for their employees, and what effect they want their organizations to have on the complete environment [eco, social, economic]. All too often leaders confuse their own purpose with the commercial imperatives of the company's services and/or products. They benchmark their own accomplishments against it. With often disastrous consequences for personal integrity and ethical standards - aka the last two years in a nutshell. This is the time to address our assumptions about leadership. To carry on in the 'old way', the status quo way, would be to blindly stroll back into a replay of the current financial crisis. Did that sound a bit out there for you? Research the 1920's if you please. That was global finical meltdown part 1. We'll dump yet another one of those on the next generation - guaranteed - when all we do is restart the broken process. The ravenous pursuit of profit-only, and the drive of personal ambition will not get us out of this cycle. Two years into the economic storm that saw the collapse of several renowned financial institutions, we have had plenty of time to assess where the blame for this mess should be placed. The reckless behavior of the banks played a pivotal role - sure. But I believe the crisis was the result of a wider problem, one that meanders into the very manner organizations operate, the way leaders are developed and how they ultimately 'lead'. There are many ways that you, as a business and/or design leader, can make sustainability initiatives an enduring [sustained] part of your company's culture, and as such of their and your own legacy. Yes, even a design firm. Yes, even in China.

 Too often, sustainability initiatives stop when the people championing them leave. When they have no internal network or support, or the initiatives are hidden so deep in the organization that the average employee doesn't even know about them. In fact, research shows only 37% of US employees are aware of their companies' Corporate Social Responsibility programs. With CSR being a completely new concept for Asia businesses - and Chinese in particular - chances are only the people appointed to manage CSR are aware. If a Chinese firm has any appointed to begin with. To realize the benefits that accrue from sustainability, you need a comprehensive and sustained approach. Doing that helps generate a lean, green operational machine and profitable new products and/or services. From our own experience and observation, some of these approaches are:
 Experiment through pilot programs. 
Many employees want to make a difference, but it's hard to be creative if they're running hard all the time. Give employees the opportunity to create something bigger than themselves – plus the time and resources to do it – and they may come up with an idea or product that redefines your industry. Firms that see this as time wasting are really only wasting their own potential and own resources. At SGTH, new designers are tasked with self initiated projects to specifically address this beast called positive design. We challenge them to push the sustainability envelope and have them train up to deal with these matters in 'the real world'. 
The best ideas are sparked by [unlikely] partnerships. 
Reach out to other organizations, especially ones with whom you wouldn't normally partner. Often, the most powerful ideas are generated when a big, difficult problem presents itself, and a new or a different pair of eyes see unexpected angles and bring in - through their expertise - new solutions. Actually, you already know this because here you are doing this right now = GIGA and its blog serves this one quite nicely.
 NGOs, local community groups, and even academic institutions can also help you see old problems in a new light. Be willing to share your ideas, open your data vaults, and collaborate with partners. I'll share more on how to successfully form sustainable partnerships later. Build a roster of champions at the top.
 Most people care about sustainability – especially people at the top. The defenders of the bottom line. If you do not see any action towards sustainability there, find the issues your company's executives care about. Use these issues – and the executives' innate enthusiasm – to generate momentum for sustainability. This is a great ice-breaker for junior staff to get into the mix of things, and share a common care with the suits above them. Who in turn have the start of an internal network, a mini-advocate they can soldier up. If you - the junior - decide to embark on this road, start by deciding what is in it for you, and what is in it for your senior.
 A quick example here is a mid-sized business where a junior and his report pushed for a company rule to have employees use stoneware mugs at the office, instead of disposable cups. Which lead to a higher awareness with others, who started promoting the use of 100% post consumer pulp recycled office paper, which saw an internal recycling program for the used paper to be send back to the manufacturer of that paper, and that program resulted in other companies in the same building both buying that paper as well as recycling internally. 
Frame sustainability so people get it. 
Sustainability is one of the most overused and least understood terms in today's lexicon. When earlier I described it from my understanding, did it reflect your understanding of what sustainability embodies? It was not even part of your dictionary or spell checker until last year. People are willing to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. But without knowing what to do once they're on it, you will not get anywhere any time fast. Other people are skeptical because they don't understand its value. Frame sustainability in language that reflects the organization's or individual's values, and you will inspire action. Not just within your organization, but within your industry and beyond.
 An interesting case studies on firms that innovate in sustainability by putting it all together is, for example, Tembec, a forest products company. They shared proprietary data (!) with an NGO and the Canadian government to help determine its carbon footprint. They then released the results publicly so that others could learn from their experiences. The short of that story is that protectionism stifles sustainability: collaboration sparks it. Organizations, especially the big ones, launch change initiatives on a regular basis. In fact, many organizations are undergoing multiple change initiatives simultaneously. There is a wealth of research on implementing total quality management, building cultures of health and safety or building cultures of compliance. While the lessons learned from these kinds of culture change may prove useful, a shift towards a culture of sustainability presents some unique challenges. Most organizational change initiatives are bounded, limiting and internal. In contrast, sustainability is part of a broader societal agenda that extends beyond the organization. Furthermore, the power for a design firm to make genuine sustainability changes may reside in the organization’s supply chain or with its key stakeholders. This often means that organizations embarking on a sustainability journey must be willing to collaborate with other organizations. For these reasons, transitions to sustainability may require status quo-breaking business models or approaches. But again; Protectionism stifles sustainability: collaboration sparks it. OK, so you the reader may not be that senior manager or top level executive. You may not have a stick in the door behind which these kind of decisions are made. Make no assumption that the above was not written for you either. It is at your position of the corporate ladder that you can start to plan, innovate and truly embed sustainability in your own professional attitude and expertise. Generating momentum for a sustainable legacy arguably works faster bottom-up, then enforced top-down. Because you made it your own mission to begin and champion it, and root it firmly in your own - and your company's - foundations. Which is a true sign of leadership talent. next week - how to form sustainable partnerships

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