Earth is warming, resources are dwindling, and people are worried. But some have sighted opportunities amid the gloom. In Sustainable Excellence, Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell explain how savvy entrepreneurs have begun implementing the principles of sustainable excellence, and are doing so profitably.
Sustainability means acknowledging that what people do now affects the world their children inherit. Excellence in business means identifying human needs and satisfying them while turning a profit for the shareholders. Industries from many sectors -- from oil to finance, detergents to IT—have managed to attain or retain excellence without ignoring the environment, human rights, or labor relations. That is sustainable excellence.
Such leaders have accepted an inconvenient truth: business as usual is dead. They have expanded their thinking to address global challenges. They have set incentives that allow sustainability to drive innovation. They have rejected secrecy and embraced transparency, and entered into partnership with consumers to shape the future.
Experts agree that Earth cannot continue to support a twentieth-century American lifestyle. The natural resources on which such a lifestyle depends are finite and nonrenewable. Recognizing this, some farsighted manufacturers are abandoning the goal of conspicuous consumption, and wrestling with how to market sustainable consumption instead.
In addition, millions of people in emerging markets (most notably China, India, and Brazil) are aspiring to a more affluent lifestyle, putting additional pressure on the planet. While the West worries that current levels of prosperity are a fading dream, people in emerging markets see the next century as one of infinite possibilities. They are confident that, though the West dominated the twentieth century, it is their turn to dominate the twenty-first.
Increased attention to human rights and fiscal responsibility, along with the proliferation of non-governmental organizations, has added transparency to the list of behaviors expected from a business. In fact, the distinction between a sustainable business and a well-run business is becoming progressively harder to make.
Sustainable excellence is not only vital to business success, it is vital to the planet and all its inhabitants. Even as a new middle class emerges, with a voracious appetite for natural resources, many other parts of the world are succeeding in using those resources more efficiently. The digital revolution has opened countless possibilities. Businesses have driven these achievements, but they cannot do so on a global scale without demonstrating that they are serious about creating a sustainable economy.
Business leaders are already facing stark choices. Business as usual – assuming an endless supply of fossil fuels and allowing wanton inefficiency – is a recipe for environmental damage and massive human suffering. Business as usual drives climate change, which risks wild weather, human dislocation, and damage to urban areas. Food and water will become increasingly less available, sparking violent unrest in the most affected regions, if not outright wars. Earth simply cannot support a twenty-first century population living like twentieth-century Americans.
But business as usual need not be the norm. If the business community focuses its resources on sustainable excellence, creative solutions to global challenges can and will emerge. The future of humanity depends on sustainable excellence.
Sustainable excellence is, then, the next wave in global business. It is the authors’ hope that, in time, the idea will become so widespread as to become the new normal. They recognize that sustainable excellence is vital to the health of companies, to the global economy, and to daily life. They are encouraged by signs of progress, and encourage all to accept the challenge.
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