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Restoring Trust Through Sustainable Excellence

ExcellenceToday is the publication date for my new book, co-authored by Zachary Karabell, Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World. Our book outlines how crucial sustainability has become for business—and for the wider world.

The last two years have been a roller coaster for the economy, with people, communities, and companies roiled by fundamental shifts. Simply put, the combination of innovation, globalization, and natural resource limits present two distinctly different futures: one that delivers dignified lives to more of the world's people than ever before, the other hits a brick wall brought on by a consumption-based model that the planet cannot sustain. Readers of Ethonomics are familiar with these divergent futures and share the mindset we present in our book, which encourages businesses to harness innovation to deliver truly lasting prosperity.

In Sustainable Excellence, we argue that the companies that build their strategies around big global challenges, and use sustainability as a driver of innovation, will be winners in the 21st century economy. And while it is clear that companies' futures depend on this, it is equally clear that there is a more immediate dividend as well.

Since the recession hit with gale force in 2008, business has experienced a near-total collapse of trust. Sustainable excellence provides a strong roadmap for companies aiming to restore trust. Famously, Lord Paul Myners, the Minister for the City of London in Gordon Brown's government in the U.K., observed that many in the financial services business "have no sense of the broader society around them." This perception lingers, in the United States as well as in the U.K.

The first principle of sustainable excellence we present in our book, "Think Big: build business strategies that meet big global challenges," addresses this very problem. We see sustainability as a crucial way that companies can create winning strategies that produce wide benefit.

This principle is increasingly on display in the world of IT. We describe a number of examples in our book, including IBM, which has in the past generation shifted from a hardware manufacturer to one that delivers services and enables smart infrastructure. IBM's shift is exemplified by its "Smarter Planet" efforts, which create both more efficient—and livable—cities, while also pioneering new market opportunities. Schneider Electric is also turning its attention to the emerging issue of energy and resource management, recognizing that its energy management systems can achieve immense savings (upwards of 40 percent by some estimates) in the energy efficiency of commercial real estate. Autodesk is creating software that enables architects to design far more efficient buildings. These examples show how companies are rolling up their sleeves to address the carbon footprint of the "built environment," which has received little public attention, but is in fact one of the key variables in creating an energy efficient economy.

And it's not only IT. Consumer products companies like Levi Strauss & Co. and Unilever are embracing a lower-impact future by using their marketing prowess to convince consumers to wash clothing in cold water, which is key to reducing the energy footprint of even the lowly t-shirt. Retailers like the U.K.'s Marks & Spencer is partnering with Oxfam to create consumer incentives to support Oxfam's poverty reduction aims.

None of this erases the financial trauma of the past two years, or the memory of oil spills, product recalls, and other lingering problems. But where companies invest in solutions that enable better health and nutrition, effective urban transportation systems, and are constructive partners in creating public policy frameworks to combat climate change and improve global living standards, we all win. Companies that design their strategies with that in mind, and dedicate the resources to following through, will achieve the competitive advantage that sustainable excellence delivers.