Panelist: Mike Barry (Head of Sustainable Business, Marks and Spencer), Deborah Holmes (Global Director, Corporate Responsibility, Ernst and Young), Alberto Vollmer (Chairman and CEO, CA Ron Santa Teresa) and Jeff Mendelsohn (Founder and CEO, New Leaf Paper)

Entering the jam-packed Rhodes Trust Lecture Theatre, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a topic that is over-discussed and under-substance. My main motivation this morning was to meet Jeff Mendelsohn, Founder of New Leaf Paper (a case which 100 of us MBAs learnt by hard for an assignment in Strategy II). What turned out, however, was the best panel I have ever attended.

Moderated by Byron Auguste (McKinsey), who did a great job throwing controversial questions, the panel comprised of old, gigantic corporations to new and smaller firms (New Leaf Paper, $25 mil, 12 years old).

Three main areas of discussion were revolving around:

  • Is there really a business case for sustainability investment among corporations?
  • When social investments conflict with financial returns, what should companies do when shareholders’ goal is primarily profits??
  • How should companies or intrapreneurs push the sustainability agenda forward within large corporations?

The first issue: Mike, having been Head of Sustainable Business for many years, believes so. For years in M&S, he has demonstrated how investment in sustainability brought cost-savings in other areas (e.g. utility bills), allow the search for new market places, and formation of new relationships and partnerships (e.g. 55% M&S vouchers distributed via Oxfam products were claimed, boosting sales; compared to the 2% industry average!). Deborah explained how networks at a higher level (e.g. first lady of South Africa) were formed from its Social Entrepreneur of the Year awards. Alberto shared that undoubtedly, the social agenda in Venezuela is not even a matter of debate – one needs that for mere survival. Different examples to the same vision.

The second issue: Bryan posed the question: “How do you demonstrate a case to a person who only wants to make money?” Jeff gave several useful suggestions- Establish connection with shareholders towards a common goal by looking out for nexuses between sustainability and markets, then use innovation to fulfill both demands. If possible, marry a company’s definition of success to the social mission. The question, in my opinion is: “Is the decision of prioritizing sustainability based on cost-benefit analysis, or strategic imperative?” If it is the former, then we would go at snail pace in making paradigm shifts in the private sector.

The third issue: Deborah said, “Use persuasion”. She explained how in E&Y, a partnership company is a challenge because every penny that is used comes out from the pockets of partners. However, she leverages on her persuasive skills to get things done around the world. Jeff uses brand power in its “Non Pulp Fiction” and “Think and Smile” campaigns where NLP users are involved in appreciating their contribution to the environment both by thinking rationally and reacting emotionally. He also shared a lesson he learnt: If you want real change, include sustainability as a key indicator in every employee’s performance evaluation.

From negotiation to marketing skills, supply chain management to HR policies to financial astuteness, the task of pushing sustainability out of a mid-level manager’s desk into the board room of corporations is a gargantuan one. It is however, not an excuse for delaying any longer, for we have done so, as the private sector, for far too long.