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Wednesday
Jul112012

Sustainagility: How Innovation and Agility Will Save the World


3 out of 5 stars.

by Patrick Dixon and Johan Gorecki, Kogan Page, London, 2010, 212pp, RRP$29.95

If you want to get anything out of this book, you’ll need to get over two things: The dreadful title and the assumptions of the authors.

We can simply forgive the first. Perhaps it sounded like a good idea at the time. Everyone was probably pretty excited.

As to the second, just skip the predictions. This book starts by telling us what it will be like in forty years’ time.

The more certain people are about that, the less likely they’ll be right, be they Thomas Malthus or Paul Ehrlich. Scary stuff often lacks credibility.

So, whizz past the early polemics and get to the good ideas. This is a checklist for any business wanting to see how they are going in the area of sustainability.

Much of this is sobering and the authors don’t shy away from the difficulties involved. Popular solutions are often counterproductive or, at best, fraught with conflicted outcomes.

A rising oil price increases the attractiveness of alternative fuels, but at the same time subsidises the development of improved extraction technology, in turn boosting the use of oil.

Meanwhile, the high oil price means cheaper substitutes like ethanol take resources away from crop and livestock production, bringing about food shortages, forcing food prices higher, and exacerbating health and starvation issues in poorer countries.

This book’s real contribution is to draw attention to the simple things we can just get on and do. Needless to say, sustainable initiatives are at their best when they are sustainable.

That means having an economic rationale for introducing them. Sometimes it’s very simple: Like have you considered installing installation or fixing leaky pipes or doing more teleconferencing rather than flying everyone around the globe?

Equally simple are the obvious suggestions. Set up a group that is tasked with looking at sustainable options. The object is not just to do something green.

It’s to do something that also helps the business. If it’s embedded in the business model for commercial reasons, it’s more likely to be sustained.

Just meet once a month, brainstorm a lot of ideas. Choose the quickest most workable idea and put it in place.

Include input from all areas of the business. Don’t isolate the skunk works. Integrate them into the business as a whole. Build inclusive think tanks that inject lateral ideas into strategies relating to other departments.

For business there are clear advantages. You can find effective ways of gaining competitive advantage, increasing profitability through lower costs, reducing waste and making prices more competitive.

All this improves your brand at a time when consumers are increasingly drawn to products that incorporate environmental thinking. If you are a supplier, many of your customers are going to demand it.

There are also financial opportunities, such as generating new revenue streams via carbon credits, or avoiding new costs from regulatory changes. Some initiatives can reduce insurance premiums.

An excellent example quoted in this book is British Sugar. They produce huge amounts of waste product in the form of CO2 emissions and hot water.

Rather than simply expel them into the environment – often at a cost to both business and the planet – they pipe them to greenhouses where they are used to grow about 30 million tonnes of tomatoes per year.

Using these waste products to heat their greenhouses and stimulate growth, production more than doubled to over 75 million tonnes per year. That’s a win-win: a profitable result that also reduces waste.

Not every business has that sort of opportunity, but this book will guide you through the many avenues you can explore. You would be hard-pressed not to come away from that exercise with an initiative that is not only good for the environment; it will also be good for business.

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