Corporate Sustainability: All Talk and No Action?

Is 'corporate sustainability' one of those tasks that exist just to be checked off a list and assigned to a few isolated people within your organization? Is your company in the position to do more than just talk about it?

Is 'corporate sustainability' one of those tasks that exist just to be checked off a list and assigned to a few isolated people within your organization? Is your company in the position to do more than just talk about it?


Those were among the questions Big Think's Peter Hopkins addressed in a recent interview with CBS's Erickson Blakney, and Hopkins had a pretty blunt response. "If all you can do is send people to conferences," he told Erickson, a company needs to "either pack it up or totally rethink what you're doing." 

While corporate sustainability has been "received as a trend" and as "something companies have to do," according to Hopkins the companies that are doing the best job are the ones that either have the most to gain or the most to lose.

Hopkins has observed that corporate sustainability has become deeply intertwined with a company's bottom line, as opposed to it being "a separate feel-good charitable enterprise." Therefore best practices tend to be found in industries where doing good is in the longterm interests of a company.

By the same token, "the companies that contribute to circumstances and conditions that are not sustainable are going to find themselves threatened by those practices down the line," Hopkins said. Unsustainable practices will eventually run into government regulation or the kind of public backlash that was seen in the case of Apple's iPad manufacturer Foxconn. 

So who is actually walking the walk?

Hopkins said that one area where we're going to see a lot of opportunity is in the developing world. A whole host of challenges have prevented businesses from taking hold, Hopkins said, "because the economies are small. The distribution channels are underdeveloped." On the other hand, we are seeing in places like Africa the rise of microbanking through cellphone use. 

Hopkins pointed out that this technology "piggybacks off the extensive cellular networks that have developed across Africa, and are its primary communications infrastructure." This kind of innovation has yet to take hold in the developed world.

Hopkins said he sees this situation as a great test case for social innovation, in which businesses that can "leverage new technologies and new infrastructures may actually find crossover applications for the developed world." 

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