Where are the green business leaders?

Sep 23 2010 by Gareth Kane Print This Article

In the business world, 'the environment', 'corporate social responsibility' and 'sustainability' have long been seen as issues to be managed. Tens of thousands of organisations have dutifully implemented ISO14001 environmental management systems, developed procedures for everything, measured key performance indicators, logged every last move they make and carried out all the requisite checks and balances.

And what has changed? Answer: not a lot. As one wag once put it, "ISO14001 allows you to destroy the planet in a well-documented manner."

So if management can't deliver green business, what can? In the words of the business guru Warren Bennis: "Management is about doing things right, leadership is about doing the right thing."

Leaving aside the highly appropriate double meaning of "doing the right thing", the implication of Bennis' maxim is that management will only ever deliver incremental improvements, but it takes leadership to deliver breakthrough changes.

Given the scale of the environmental challenge - most notably government targets to cut carbon emissions by 80per cent - it is clear that breakthrough change is what we need, so it follows we need corporate leadership.

There's a strong parallel here with the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement which revolutionised Japanese manufacturing in the mid 20th century. TQM took quality out of the quality manager's office and made it everybody's responsibility. All systems, products and even supply chains were aligned to the goal of quality before the continual improvement of good management took over.

To meet the sustainability challenge, we need a similar revolution to take 'green' out of the environmental manager's office and embed it into the DNA of the organisation. And again, that takes leadership.

The companies that are leading this revolution are certainly showing clear and bold leadership from the very top. Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface - the world's largest floor covering company, has set an extraordinary target of zero impact on the environment by 2020. About halfway through that timeframe, they believe they're about halfway there. And Anderson is certainly bold, being perfectly happy to kill off profitable product lines which are incompatible with his goal.

When Sir Stuart Rose was CEO of Marks & Spencer, he committed £200 million to the company's Plan A sustainability programme before any plans were drawn up – a move of clear leadership. In 2008 Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, pledged to invest $1.4bn into a new range of low carbon technologies under the company's Ecomagination programme.

This year, Rose announced $10bn further investment over the next five years and entrepreneurs are currently pitching their low carbon products and services to GE through an on-line portal, building and sustaining a network of green innovators.

But green business leaders like Anderson, Immelt and Rose are few and far between. Whenever I'm called in to help organisations trying and failing to go green, the prognosis is usually lack of leadership. I find that CEOs and MDs are always the most likely to duck out of a meeting or workshop on environmental strategy.

They obviously see green as an issue to delegate, but this isn't so much delegation but derogation of responsibility. Where's their commitment if they can always find something better to do with their time?

Another warning sign is businesses who claim to be 'committed' to protecting the environment but who have no budget to do so. In my book, no budget means no commitment. If staff have to go cap in hand to the boardroom every time they need green investment, progress will be incremental at best.

So we need a whole new generation of green business leaders to follow the trail blazed by pioneers like Rose, Immelt and Anderson. This new generation will see sustainability as a critical component of their future business success.

But they won't be idealistic mugs or tree huggers; they will understand and face up to the challenges that going green raises and they will search for the solutions that are good for the planet and good for their business.

And most important of all, they will demonstrate commitment, not just in what they say, but in what they do – walking the talk and putting their money where their mouth is.


About The Author

Gareth Kane
Gareth Kane

Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, speaker, trainer, coach and author. He has worked with hundreds of organisations, from small local companies to trans-national corporations, to help them get the most from the sustainability agenda.