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June 10, 2005
Book Review--The Next Sustainability Wave: Building Boardroom Buy-In
    by William Baue

Longtime IBM Canada executive authors a sequel book, adding new sustainability drivers and providing a comprehensive tool for convincing management to consider sustainability.


In The Next Sustainability Wave, the sequel to The Sustainability Advantage, Bob Willard continues his mission of evangelizing sustainability to the skeptics who inhabit seats of corporate power. While he acknowledges the validity of the ethical, environmentalist, and humanitarian arguments for sustainability, he believes these tactics will not convince capitalists as effectively as the business case, so he deliberately chooses to speak in business vernacular.

He also speaks in accessible language, and employs a user-friendly structure. Open the book to any page, and you will find a blend of humor, statistics, pithiness, even-handedness, pragmatism, and objectivity. Each page-spread is intended to be self-contained, arguing one specific point. The left-hand pages contain quotes from the 43 sustainability experts he interviewed and article reprints. They even contain "Dilbert" cartoons!

The right-hand pages contain Mr. Willard's own commentary, which runs the gamut from well-documented facts to colorful metaphors (for example, the business case is a "Trojan horse" for getting sustainability into the boardroom). The two facing pages create a conversation of sorts, with the left-hand side providing copious anecdotal evidence and the right side presenting concise arguments supporting the section's point. Taken together, each page-spread advances the book's ultimate goal: to convince corporate decision-makers of the validity of integrating sustainability into their business model.

The overall structure of the book reinforces this goal as well. Each argument is not only self-contained, it also acts as an incremental step in the overall case for corporate sustainability. To facilitate navigation along his line of reasoning, Mr. Willard breaks it up into subsets that readers can easily visualize.

For example, he posits five stages of development for companies on the path to sustainability: pre-compliance (Stage 1), compliance (Stage 2), beyond compliance (Stage 3), integrated strategy (Stage 4), and purpose and passion (stage five). Stage 5 companies are typically small firms founded on sustainable principles, while Stage 4 companies tend to be large firms that adopt sustainability and are significant due to their visibility.

"The distinction is not meant to be a value judgment," writes Mr. Willard. "Frankly, if we got to the tipping point of companies using sustainability as a management discipline at Stage 4, I would be delighted."

"I am less concerned with the righteousness of motivations than I am with results," he adds, exhibiting his pragmatism.

Later, Mr. Willard frames five signs that sustainability's tipping point is close, borrowing the theoretical framework popularized by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. Among these signs are the fact that "financial markets are poking with sharper sticks" and "sustainability reporting is becoming business as usual."

"If the critical mass required to reach the tipping point is 20 percent, I estimate about one percent to five percent of corporations buy into the concept now," he writes.

The middle of the book is filled with a recapitulation of the three primary drivers of the first sustainability wave presented in his first book, as well as two emerging drivers of the next sustainability wave. The emerging drivers include a "perfect storm" of risks, such as climate change, and compelling business value and opportunities presented by sustainability.

The body of the book next contains a long list of specific objections corporate executives might pose to resist integrating sustainability considerations, each followed on a separate page by specific responses that map out strong arguments that answer the objection.

The book ends with a long exposition on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which are often overlooked when the sustainability spotlight focuses on big companies, but are very significant in their cumulative social and environmental impact.

 

 
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