Bob’s practical approach helps lay out a plan that any person can apply to their lifestyle or business to live a sustainable lifestyle.
Bob Willard is a senior executive with 30+ years of working in IBM as a leading expert on the business value of corporate sustainability strategies. After retiring, he’s done talks and written books around sustainability.
How do you like to practice sustainability in your daily life?
I always try to get my carbon footprint under control, and the money I make is always given back to causes that are helping us go in the right direction.
On the carbon footprint side, I’ve changed my business model so that I don’t fly anymore, and I also got an electric car. Once you decide to do these little things that can help our planet, it’s amazing how things can come together.
Why should business executives or entrepreneurs embrace sustainability?
There are three reasons why businesses should pay attention to sustainability.
First, it’s the right thing to do. Second, it helps them capture additional opportunities and more revenue. Third, they can avoid some risks which could blindside them if they’re not ready for them.
Do you agree that aside from sustainability, we should also practice regeneration?
I totally agree because we really need both. Sustainability is trying to help companies reduce the harm they’re causing to the environment and society through various ways like avoiding the overuse of water and materials and proper waste disposal.
In parallel with that, there’s also an effort to be regenerative, restorative, and recover from some of the harm already done.
When companies talk about being net positive, they mean reducing their impacts on people and the planet and recovering some of the ecosystem services we’ve been damaging for the last 250 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Nowadays, we’re starting to get smarter at doing some of the metrics around what it means to be regenerative. These metrics are improving, and it’s long overdue.
What are common pitfalls to avoid while transforming businesses to be sustainable?
If it’s your own business, you can just do a self-assessment and then decide what it is you want to get better at. But it’s a little trickier if it’s somebody else’s business.
The reason is that if you’re trying to transform their business for and with them, they’re probably going to be a little defensive because they probably thought it was the right way to do it.
So the challenge is to help them understand that there are new things to take advantage of and ways to make sure you are capitalizing on new technologies, techniques, and information to transform their business.
This way, their business can be more aligned with the decarbonized and more just economy that we’re moving towards, so they will be part of the forces driving us towards that destination.
But you need to be careful about how you orchestrate others to be as supportive as you are for these changes that you want to happen with their business.
The first thing to remember is don’t do it alone. Second, make sure it’s relevant to the business. If your competitors are doing these things with their companies or your stakeholders are asking you to do them, it makes sense to do it.
The third thing is don’t try to do the whole thing at once. Start by trying it out a little first and making sure that it works. Then, scale it inside the organization.
You can either scale it into other parts of the organization, such as waste reduction or energy efficiencies or be more inclusive of other issues.
For instance, you don’t only focus on waste of paper and materials, but you also include water, waste of employee energy, etc. In short, you partner with others, make it relevant, and start small to go big.
Should all businesses be sustainable? How can they do it?
Yes. You need to be smart as a change agent, waiting for those external signals that say an issue is becoming important for your customers or the people you depend on for capital, which could be investors or bankers.
Since climate change is becoming a big issue, more people are sending out these signals. For instance, the SEC has already ruled out that any company listed on the stock exchange needs to disclose to potential investors how prepared it is for climate change.
This is because investors don’t want to put their money into a company that could be at risk from the impacts of climate change, either directly on them as an organization, or on their supply or customer chains.
Once the companies receive these signals from the people who are the source of their funds, they will start to pay attention to it because there’s money involved.
In the investment community, bankers are starting to issue sustainability-linked loans, where they get a better rate to companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, who are doing better on sustainability issues than other companies because they’re at a better risk.
Is it too late for us now to fix climate issues?
We’re very late on climate change. The climate has already changed permanently. All we can do now is avoid changing it too much more.
What we’re trying to do is to keep the amount of climate change under various thresholds. We’re now on our way to one and a half degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, and we’re trying to keep it under that.
To do that, we must reduce our carbon footprint by half by 2030 and 100% by 2050. These science-based targets are getting a lot of traction in the business community, and companies are doing it for business reasons.
This is because climate change is the biggest threat to the world economy, and all businesses will be affected. Sometimes it takes that kind of awareness to wake them up.
What’s a practical partnership between businesses that you’ve seen?
There are lots of ways they can support not only charitable organizations but other NGOs that are more grassroots organizations. If what those organizations are doing aligns with their values and what they care about, then they should make contributions.
Aside from that, they can also partner with other like-minded businesses. Many business organizations are very focused on solving various environmental issues which they can partner with.
I hope you enjoyed my talk with Bob and that you took away some value. If you want to listen to the entire interview, click play below or head over to your favorite platform (Apple, Spotify, or Google.)
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