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Thu 6 Mar 2008 04:00 AM

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Sustainability: A call for action

A company's journey to becoming more sustainable is not only about reducing costs, explains Brian Armstrong.

In the early 1990s, the internet began to transform the way we live, work and interact with one another.

Who would have envisioned then that we would have instantaneous access to information through tools like Google or Wikipedia? Or that some companies would use the web as their primary sales channel? Sustainability will bring a similar wave of change. But to what extent will it drive future innovation?

Faced with pressure from all sides, leading companies around the world are constantly striving to become more sustainable. But does this drive toward a more sustainable future inspire innovation - the lifeblood of today's successful company?

The journey to becoming more sustainable is not only about reducing costs.

That's what BT and Cisco wanted to know when they asked a panel of respected academics from around the world to study this issue in-depth. Their conclusion was that striving to become more sustainable can generate innovation across all parts of the corporation, but only when an organisation puts sustainability at its core.

Corporate sustainability includes strategies that aspire to meet the needs of organisations while protecting, supporting and enhancing human and natural resources. Leading companies around the world are convinced that finding new ideas to meet the challenges of environmental, social and economic sustainability will form a key part of their future.

In fact, the drive to become more sustainable is a journey that has already inspired many global enterprises to radically change their business models and consider new strategies that were previously taboo. Many organisations have responded by reducing their environmental impacts and risks through improved environmental management practices and the economical use of natural resources.

For example, remember the way we used to buy carpet? We would select something then use it until it wears out, the lime green colour was no longer fashionable or we spilled some red wine on it. At that point, we'd simply throw it away and go buy something else. US carpet manufacturer, Interface, has pioneered a completely new approach. Instead of selling carpets, the company leases them to both consumers and business customers for an annual fee. When a customer is done with a carpet, Interface recycles it into a new product.

The result is that Interface created an entirely new market for its products and the used carpets are no longer dumped in a local landfill. And that's just a starting point: Interface has since set a goal of eliminating any negative impact they have on the environment by the year 2010.

Financial services giant, Citigroup, has taken an entirely different approach to sustainability, aiming to save almost US$100m a year by reducing energy use in its offices around the world.

Through simple methods - turning off escalators during certain periods of the day, switching off unnecessary lights, changing the settings on thermostats and redesigning its branches to use more natural light - the company becomes more sustainable and simultaneously reduces its operating costs. Still, the journey to becoming more sustainable is not only about reducing costs or adding value to the bottom line. It is also about innovating to the benefit of both the environment and society at large.

There's no doubt that organisations that focus on sustainability may see their business undergo radical transformation, but it won't happen overnight. It's important to remember that sustainability is a journey. The more sustainable we become, the more insight we'll have into opportunities to improve our economic, environmental and social performance.

Brian Armstrong is the vice president of BT Middle East and Africa.

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Firozali A MUlla MBA PhD 12 years ago

Thank you for the informative write up. The new CEO will also be the Chief Environment Officer as we need to stay green with the productions and the by-products we throw out. Many countries are not like Australia which has a very good eco-recycling system.