There’s nothing like an extended period of weak economic growth following a nasty recession to subdue environmental initiatives. During my long public service career, I watched as enthusiasm about the environment waxed and waned. Leadership proved fleeting–reminiscent of the attention span of a budgie.

My last gig in government, before retiring in December 2010, included working for several years on policy issues relating to sustainability in the manufacturing sector. I found this fascinating work because of my long-time interest in environmental issues and my belief that many economic opportunities exist for North American companies that choose the sustainability path.

Governments change, and so do priorities. In my last few years in government interest in business sustainability slipped steadily. Attention spans by senior bureaucrats drifted elsewhere; Canada’s manufacturing sector was struggling for survival, like its big cousin to the south.

A retrenchment mindset causes people to act in myopic ways. Batten down the hatches. Just get through the current business quarter. There’s no excuse, however, for those in government with specific mandates to assist industrial sectors (such as manufacturing) to lose interest for the next fad. Those who are awarded the privilege to work in policy development in government need to stay focused and think long-term strategies.

So here we are in Canada and the United States, still freaking out about the Great Recession that whacked our two countries. The result has been short-term thinking.

If it weren’t bad enough that new industrialized economies (e.g, China, Brazil, India and South Korea) are already eating our lunch when it comes to manufacturing) they’re now getting in on the sustainability–Green–bandwagon. To add more misery to the West, new emerging economies (e.g., Indonesia, Philippines and Costa Rica) are joining in.

In the September 17, 2011, issue of The Economist (Schumpter, “Green Growth”), the Boston Consulting Group’s new study Redefining the Future of Growth: The New Sustainability Champions is highlighted. BCG examined 16 companies that are converting “eco-consciousness” into competitive advantage. Labeled “the new sustainability champions,” these firms are shaking up the competitive landscape through leadership: motivating employees, forming new relationships with stakeholders and creating new, locally grown ideas.

Some of the examples given include:
• Shree Cement (India) solved its water shortage problem by creating the world’s first water-efficient method in making cement by using an air-cooled process;
• Manila Water (Philippines) reduced municipal water consumption due to waste and illegal tapping from 63% (1997) to 12%;
• Sekem (Egypt) has established the goal of reclaiming desert land through organic farming.
• Natura (Brazil) offers bonuses to employees to decrease the cosmetics firm’s environmental impact.

And the list goes on.

So what are we doing in Canada and America when it comes to innovation and thinking strategically about the long-term?

Not much, especially in Canada.

The Canadian way thrives on mediocrity, storytelling about how nice Canadians are and how much the world loves us.

Pity, because the rest of the world is hungry–very hungry–to succeed.

While the European Union gradually implodes in upon itself and while the United States becomes increasingly insular and insecure, the emerging economies are steadily getting their shit together. Canadians and Americans will be all the poorer in the decades ahead unless action is taken NOW!

Yes, there are success cases out there, one of which I’ve written about in the past. Please take a moment to read my September 18 post In Memory of the World’s Greenest CEO.

Reflect for a moment on the amazing work that Ray Anderson did up to his recent death. Ray had a vision, revamped his company (Interface Inc.) and then became the world leader in sustainable manufacturing.

In closing, I’d like to share part of the conclusion of the Boston Consulting Group study.

This report showcases the practices of a select group of companies – emerging-country organizations that demonstrate that it is entirely possible to deliver exemplary financial performance while placing environmental and social sustainability at the core of operations and culture. The motives and actions of these New Sustainability Champions present pragmatic ways in which society can become a more effective steward of Earth’s natural

More encouraging still is the fact that these exemplary companies are not the only organizations that encourage hope for a sustainable future. Many others have integrated one or more of the practices on which the Champions score high marks. Collectively, such companies signal new and positive paths toward sustainable growth in emerging economies – paths that may also point to global growth that respects and accommodates environmental and societal constraints.

What are YOU prepared to do to help your organization pay more attention to Planet Earth and to become more environmentally responsible?

Photos by J. Taggart (Irving Nature Park, Saint John, New Brunswick)

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Tags: Anderson, Economy, Environment, Globalization, Leadership, Management, Ray, Sustainability


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