Sustainability: Turning Philosophy into Competency

by | Feb 23, 2012

At an executive briefing I recently attended, a panel of Fortune 500 CEOs was asked if their organizations aspired to leadership in sustainability. Polite laughter broke out, with comments like “would we really want to be up here advocating for the alternative?”

They went on to say aspiration is no longer the issue with sustainability – every business wants to be good at aligning economic interests with environmental and social concerns. The real questions are about focus and competency. They admitted being less clear on “what exactly does the organization need to do?”, and “how do we effectively get there?”

These questions are complicated, and with good reason. As an operating philosophy, sustainability has implications for an organization’s strategy, processes, roles, and technology infrastructure. Further, if affects all functions within an organization. Yet when done right, organizations are enhancing brand value and reputation, differentiating their products, managing risk, using resources more efficiently and saving money.

Figure 1: Top-Level Sustainability Competency Model


Over the past few years, major companies such as Intel, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and HP have been regularly identified as sustainability leaders in investment indices such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and press rankings such as Newsweek’s Green Company Rankings. A common attribute shared by these organizations is that they are developing new competencies for sustainability across multiple business functions.

Our competency model above outlines the scope and dimensions of sustainability within an organization. Leaders are performing traditional functions in new ways, incorporating new strategies, competencies and technology related to sustainability. Goal setting, customer interaction, design and certification of products, energy sourcing, employee engagement, vendor management, corporate reporting, risk management, and facility energy efficiency are all examples of functions being transformed in the context of sustainability.

We see many specific examples of leadership in sustainability, coming from a wide variety of organizations and functions. In the coming months, we will be involving a number of these organizations in online briefings and case study reports, so their insights can be shared with a broader audience. Our goal is to get below the headline level, to explore economics and the detailed “how” questions most useful to those considering similar efforts.

An outstanding leadership example in facilities resource efficiency is Adobe Systems. In 2011, for each of its three headquarters high rise towers in San Jose, California, Adobe earned an EPA Energy Star rating of 100. This puts them in the top 1% for energy efficiency among similar facilities. At an upcoming online conference in March, we will hear representatives from Adobe, Cushman-Wakefield, and the US EPA Energy Star program describe their extensive efficiency program, leading practices and metrics for building energy management, monitoring, and related incentive structures.

Another such example is IKEA, and their efforts in sourcing renewable energy. IKEA has become a leading commercial adopter, with on-site solar at 85 percent of their US stores by the end of 2012. IKEA is one of a number of major organizations significantly scaling their solar deployments around the country, in response to falling solar prices and broadening a broadening of incentive programs. Later in March, we will hear from IKEA and others in an online conference focused on the details of how and why organizations are moving beyond experimentation with solar solutions to broad-scale deployment.

In summary, it is exciting to see how major corporations and institutions around the world are benefiting by embracing sustainability. Yet it is still early, and organizations are looking to learn and develop new competencies across a wide range of business functions. We remain focused on providing relevant market analyses, frameworks, and leading practice examples, to help organizations convert a philosophy of sustainability into new operating competencies.

Don Bray is Cofounder and President of AltaTerra Research. He has led a broad range of research and consulting engagements in corporate sustainability, resource efficiency, and renewable energy systems. He has deep expertise in enterprise information systems, and has authored several reports on enterprise sustainability management solutions. He is a frequent writer, speaker, and moderator on emerging developments in resource efficiency and corporate sustainability.

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