Brightwolves had the chance to meet with Professor Wayne Visser to discuss the evolution of sustainable value in companies. Through the interview, Pr. Wayne points out useful frameworks and approaches for anyone looking to build sustainable value in its company.
Wayne Visser is a writer, speaker, film producer, academic, social entrepreneur and futurist focused on sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and creating integrated value.
• Professor of integrated value and holder of the chair in sustainable transformation at Antwerp Management School.
• Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behaviour, ranking by Excellence and Trust Across America.
• Writer of 27 books, including 19 non-fiction and 8 fiction, and published more than 320 chapters and articles.
• Writes a regular column on international sustainable business for the HuffPost and The Guardian newspaper.
As from the early stages in your career you have been deeply invested in sustainability – e.g. as KPMG director of sustainable services in the nineties. How have you seen the topic evolve, and how do you see the future?
W.V.: The interest and importance of sustainability has grown tremendously over the past 30 years. It used to be the exception to see companies and governments working on this topic. Often the topic was considered as an “add-on” to social responsibility.
Today organizations, especially larger ones, are almost obligated to work on sustainability. Undoubtedly, this is a positive evolution but it has also become somewhat of a corporate narrative. In other words, image creation. For example, most annual reports these days include an elaborated section on sustainability. However, there is a difference between claiming and leading.
We see too much confusion, many labels, specific jargon, multiple ways of measuring impact. As an investor, consumer or employee this doesn’t make matters any easier.
How can we create more transparency? (Should we evolve to ‘enforceable’ standards? Which framework is most suitable?)
W.V.: The most used frameworks all have their strengths and weaknesses. We can categorise them in three groups.
1. Principle based frameworks:
• Example: Sustainable development goals (United Nations)
• Strengths: well-known, international, comprehensible
• Weaknesses: aimed at governments, no metrics for companies, allows business to “cherry pick”
2. Process based frameworks:
• Example: ISO26000 (Guidance on social responsibility)
• Strengths: clear key principles, a more elaborated guidance (user guides, assessment tools, etc.)
• Weaknesses: you can be ISO26000 compliant once you install the processes, regardless of your ambitions or actual results
3. Product based frameworks:
• Example: eco-labels
• Strengths: focus on the value chain & standards
• Weaknesses: general public does not know what’s really behind these labels, there are too many of them
Next to these frameworks there are several sustainable concepts, of which CSR, the triple bottom line and shared value are the most well-known.
• “CSR is dead”. It’s completely out of fashion. Not because the concept is not valid, but because it has too much baggage. Nowadays it is associated with philanthropy, something organized in the margins of a company, in order to create goodwill. It lacks the holistic and systemic approach that’s needed.
• The triple bottom line still has a lot of impact as opposed to CSR. It has been ‘translated’ in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (tracks performance of the world’s leading companies in terms of economic, environmental and social criteria) and the GRI sustainability reporting standards (The GRI Standards are the first global standards for sustainability reporting).
Similar to the CSR – the founder John Elkington (link) called out to withdraw the triple bottom line … or to at least to completely rethink it. The problem is that it is used too much for communication and too little for real action. It has not proven to be systemic.
If these frameworks and approaches fail to deliver on their promises, what do you believe to be better alternatives, what characterizes a good strategy?
W.V.: Any alternative should promote a common language, a general understanding if you will. And it must be systemic. Both elements are key. It must focus on the core of the organization. What value does the organisation create (or destroy) through its processes, products and services for all its stakeholders and for society, not just for shareholders? It’s about the mindset and having a strategic discussion. If this element is lacking, no framework will cover for it.
What is your shortlist? How can we promote ‘one language’?
W.V.: In the last decade, business leaders have already made a shift from shareholders to a broader view on stakeholders. This line of thinking is now embedded.
• Sustainable value (Stuart Hart) has become a common language, partly due to the triple bottom line. The downside here is the lack of integration between the 3 topics.
• Shared value (Michael Porter) has been very popular but in a sense, it is only a double bottom line (social and economic) and – in essence – brings very little new to the table.
All these approaches have their merits in formulating a common language, by providing a comprehensible story and guiding concepts, which helps to have a good discussion. But none of them are systemic.
• Integrated value (Wayne Visser) aims to combine both the strategic positioning and the systemic aspect.
You put a lot of emphasis on the systemic part, what really defines a systemic approach?
W.V.: A systemic approach recognises that all organisations are embedded not only in an economy but also in a society and an ecosystem, of which they are completely dependent. Something is not systemic when it becomes a ‘tick the box’ operation, in other words to communicate and move-on.
• To have a systemic approach it must incorporate the limits of society and of the environment. The doughnut economy (Kate Raworth) is a very strong example of how to visually illustrate these boundaries. Although it tells a more compelling story for governments than for companies.
• It should be based on real science and numbers. Climate change for instance, has been a big help in promoting frameworks that are science based.
• It should promote tangible ambitions. Here, governments should of course also play their role. Here we can look at the Future Fit Benchmark, which is a systemic reporting standard.
From a pragmatic point of view, where should a company start?
W.V.: You start with talking about value. What is the value of your organization? If the value of the organization is in line with sustainability, it is time to start a discussion on ambitions. Focus on a few ambitious goals. These goals should drive the organization. Change will come from listening to stakeholders and from the culture of the organization.