Companies striving to create sustainability within their own firms must now also consider how their practices affect the world around them. "Sustainable Excellence is a pioneering work about integrating environmentally responsible practices with the aims of big business," says Colin Dickerman, publishing director of Rodale Books and the editor of Sustainable Excellence (Rodale). PW asked coauthors Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell for a preview.
PW: If you had to rate one company in your book as the "most excellent" in terms of sustainability, what would it be and why?
AC & ZK: Experience shows that companies rise and fall in their performance—and the perception of analysts. Three years ago, for example, many people spoke of BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs as sustainability leaders in their industries, and each has had an extremely difficult 2010, BP in particular. All this suggests that reliably naming a leader is even harder than achieving that status. But in terms of the five principles of sustainable excellence that we outline in the book, Wal-Mart, Nike, Best Buy, and Unilever stand out as companies that are among those making very serious efforts to apply them in all aspects of their businesses.
PW: What are some specific examples in your book of large businesses' most innovative responses to environmental problems?
AC & ZK: Nike, for example, is working toward a "closed loop" approach that produces shoes without waste. This will take a while to achieve, but it's the kind of big, audacious goal that can transform both markets and the environment. We are also excited by innovative collaborations, like GE and Google's efforts to build information management systems that will eventually deliver radical energy—and cost—savings for residential and commercial users alike. And Broad Air of China, driven by the vision of its founder, Zhang Yue, has built a business by creating a low-energy air-conditioning unit, and it is now remaking its business by aiming to provide services that deliver comfortable buildings through design, not only products that cool the air.
PW: What issues of sustainability do you see as still unaddressed by large companies?
AC & ZK: A big one that companies have not yet figured out is how much consumption is too much. The fact is that the world does not have enough natural resources to extend Western living standards globally, based on existing models. This is why the subject of "sustainable consumption" is the elephant in the room few want to discuss—yet.