Want to join the sustainability leaders? Start asking this question…

Like many disciplines, sustainability has its own Premier League of companies: those who garner constant admiration for their achievements, and snaffle all the trophies going.

The leading companies – among them Marks & Spencer, Kingfisher, Interface and Unilever – are raising the bar at an astonishing rate, and pulling steadily away from their competitors. They’re producing innovative new sustainable product and marketing campaigns, digging further and more effectively into their supply chains, and going beyond standalone sustainability strategies to transform their core business models.

That makes it frustrating – and even a little confusing – to work in sustainability for a company that’s not an out-and-out leader. You’re working hard… so why isn’t your company one of those pulling ahead?

There’s no single action that means a company has transformed its thinking from sustainability strategy to sustainable business… but there is, in my experience, a rapid way to assess whether it is ready to make the change.

Ask this simple question of senior management:

Why does this company exist?

If you get the answer “to make a profit” or “to sell x”, or even “to build shareholder value through integrated service provision”, you’ve got some work to do.

Technically, they’re absolutely right; they’re just looking at it from the wrong direction. Because, fundamentally, your business is not selling a product or service: it’s selling the benefits of that product or service.

This isn’t an original thought; nor is it a complicated one. I guarantee your marketing team knows this inside out, and can list the benefits in order of importance to consumers. Soap isn’t just soap; it’s a way to feel clean, to protect your family and reduce the spread of disease. A holiday isn’t just a holiday; it’s relaxation, escape, or adventure.

But do your non-marketing colleagues understand it too?

B&Q, the chain of stores owned by Kingfisher, sells tools, paint and other home improvement products. Given this information, how would you make that business more sustainable? You might look at sustainable sourcing of wood, metal and other materials. You might consider the energy efficiency of the power tools you sell. You might also aim to hire staff who find it more difficult to gain employment. B&Q has done all of these things and more.

But once you begin to see B&Q as a company that enables people to improve their homes, many more opportunities present themselves. Kingfisher’s new Net Positive business strategy takes advantage of this type of thinking. Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, said in a recent article for Guardian Sustainable Business: “We as retailers are examining how we might shift from selling items such as a power drill to selling the use of it, perhaps through leasing or fractional ownership”.

Leasing is an exciting new area for B&Q, and there will be many other obstacles to overcome before it becomes a reality. But had the company insisted that its core business was to sell home improvement products, this solution would simply not have presented itself.

So, if you want to help your business make the leap from good to great, start asking this question of your colleagues. If you don’t get the answer you’re looking for, make it a priority to help them understand the distinction. Otherwise, you’re destined to spend your days greening the same old business model instead of transforming your company into a model of sustainable business.

Image: Norwich Street Art: Why do you do this? by markheybo is licensed under CC BY 2.0