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September 14, 2004
Conference Promotes Sustainability Through Corporate Collaboration
    by William Baue

The Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) Business Innovation for Sustainability Forum calls for cooperation amongst companies as well as with stakeholders.


In the current climate, corporations sit at the crossroads between capitalism, fueled as it is by competition, and sustainability, which requires significant collaboration to reverse destructive social, environmental, and economic trends. While corporations cannot escape the capitalist underpinnings of the free market economy, neither can they afford to continue unsustainable practices leading to society's (as well as their own) ruin.

Enter the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), a nonprofit member organization that promotes collaboration amongst corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics. SoL is sponsoring a forum on sustainability entitled "Business Innovation for Sustainability: Leadership, Learning, and Collaboration for a Living Economy," which will be held from October 11 through 14, 2004 in Dearborn, Michigan. While many conferences focus on how companies can advance sustainability in their own operations, this one will focus on corporate collaboration on sustainability.

Asked to describe the main mission of SoL, founding chair and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Senior Lecturer Peter Senge explained as follows:

"The basic idea is very simple: that world organizations can do together what they can't possibly do by themselves," stated Dr. Senge in an interview published in Link, an internal newsletter at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). "The whole area of sustainability is a prime example."

"There's very little that any one company by itself can do to lead industrial societies toward a way of living that conserves rather than destroys our social and natural capital," continued Dr. Senge.

Appropriately, the corporate community will show a strong presence at the forum. Forum presenters include CEOs such as Roger Saillant of Plug Power (ticker: PLUG) and Dinesh Paliwal of ABB (ABB). Corporate responsibility executives, such as Bob Langert of McDonald’s (MCD), David Stangis of Intel (INTC), and Rob Frederick of Ford (F), also fill the ranks of presenters. True to SoL's ties with the research community, presenters also include researchers such as Riva Krut of Cameron-Cole, Frank Dixon of Innovest Stategic Value Advisors, Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), and John Elkington of SustainAbility.

The forum, sponsored by SoL's Sustainability Consortium that includes BP (BP), Coca-Cola (KO), Harley-Davison (HDI), HP (HPQ), Nike (NKE), Shell (RD), Unilever (UN), and United Technologies (UTX), will focus on a series of questions. Questions include what metrics companies use to define sustainability achievement, as well as what are compelling business cases for sustainability? Dr. Senge's answer to the latter question provides a potential preview to how it will be answered at the forum.

"If you look at any long-term investment or new technology, the idea that there is a cut-and-dried quantitative business case is nonsense," Dr. Senge said in the PwC interview, after which he cited an example of a business case for sustainability. "One of the largest sellers of fish products and agricultural goods in the world is also one of the largest users of water."

"They look at global practices in fishing, agriculture, and water, and they basically say, the business case [for sustainable development] for us is survival," Dr. Synge continued. "That's one type of business case, and believe me, it's very compelling."

Workshop titles, such as "Reducing Unsustainability Does Not Create Sustainability: Using the Shifting-the-Burden Archetype to Examine Alternatives to Sustainability Strategies," reveal little tolerance for greenwash. Other workshop topics, such as "Total Corporate Responsibility: Making Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Sustainable," address cutting-edge approaches to creating corporate sustainability.

 

 
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