Monday, 2 April 2007

Sustainability Stories - Lessons for Destinations

This entry was inspired by a presentation delivered by Joel Makower at the 2007 Greening the Hospitality Industry Conference in Portland Oregon.

For several years now organizations across a diversity of sectors have been embracing corporate responsibility. What does this approach mean for destination marketers and managers? What can be learned from the stories of corporations providing products and services to other sectors?

Corporate responsibility is a term interpreted differently by different individuals. For the purpose of this entry I would like to focus on the concept of corporate environmental responsibility. My definition of this concept is consideration by corporations of how their practices contribute to environmental health. Wrapped in this is an obligation to reduce impacts and possibly create environmental benefits as a product of corporate activities with a hope that future generations may benefit from a healthier planet, or at a minimum at least not be burdened with a lessened environment.

So to begin, a few sustainability stories…..

In 2005 General Electric unveiled “ecoimagination”, or - as GE calls it – their vision for a healthier world. The program was the result of extensive 18 month consultations with employees and leaders within GE, as well as customers and other stakeholder groups outside of the company. Participants were engaged in ‘daydreaming sessions’ of what kind of a life they desired in 2015 and what products they would need from GE to secure this quality of life. From this process came a four-part strategy to embrace corporate responsibility not only as a way of reducing environmental impacts but creating the business case for cleaner energy technologies. GE’s strategy includes doubled investment in research and development of clean technologies, increased revenues from eco-imagination products, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and public reporting of progress in these areas. It is a very ambitious program.

A second example: Coca-Cola. By 2010 Coca-Cola hopes to have reduced 700,000 tons of GHG emissions – the equivalent of 150,000 cars being removed from the road - by attending to a single aspect of their business. Vending machines produce 3 times the estimated emissions from manufacturing of Coke products and 5 times more than the emissions from fleet transport. To attempt to cut GHG emissions and energy consumption associated with refrigeration Coca-Cola is partnering with the USEPA, Greenpeace and UNEP to develop and test proto-type coolers in Spain, Japan, Greece, Australia, Italy and Scandinavia.

And a third example. Patagonia. The brand is recognized worldwide as a quality outdoor clothier with a strong commitment to corporate responsibility. In an innovative attempt to show how the tropical rainforest was viable as an economic resource without being cut down Patagonia introduced a t-shirt several years ago that made use of buttons made from the wood of the Tagua nut. Now the tagua nut is the product of many years of evolution, with properties that allow it to expand and propagate new trees in a high moisture tropical environment. Unfortunately for Patagonia, this ancient evolutionary process led to the return of thousands of shirts whose buttons, left to soak in our washing machines, would crack when subjected to the heat of the drier.

What lessons can be learned from these stories by destination professionals?

Green for the sake of the earth is noble, but a losing business proposition.
Investments in sustainability projects need to not only reduce impacts or create environmental benefits, they need to make business sense in terms of reducing costs, improving efficiencies, enhancing image, reducing risk and achieving other strategic goals.

The second lesson is that green is the new green – it is a growth business opportunity. GE is aiming to increase revenues to at least $20 billion in 2010 through Ecoimagination products. Patagonia has proven it has staying power as a company whose products are founded on creating the least harm to the environment.

A third lesson: climate is changing. Not only is it changing, but the public and shareholders are concerned about what is being done to address the impacts from climate change by business. Businesses as a result are working to minimize their risk to climate change, and taking responsibility for reducing emissions and communicating success in this area.

Measurement and reporting is key. Corporate responsibility reporting is a critical part of sustainability strategy. GE, Coke and Patagonia all participate in global reporting initiatives which are key to program evaluation and improvement, and necessary in order to be transparent and avoid environmental criticism.

Partnerships are critical.
Corporate responsibility is enhanced where companies can join with established environmental or sustainability initiatives. In the past there has been fear on the part of companies to share their environmental programs for risk of criticism for insufficiency of effort. Partnerships with environmental groups and global reporting initiatives helps to show long term commitments to learning and improved sustainability that emphasise the journey – rather than the destination.

Risk is unavoidable. It is important for green professionals to be open to the prospect of failure in our work. Sometimes ideas pay off, sometimes they don’t. In the case of Patagonia their positioning as a clean, green, organic clothing supplier with extensive policies for ethical and green purchasing has earned them a loyal, long-term customer base. However, sometimes ideas that seem good – whether it be nut buttons or switching to fully online delegate registration - just don’t work out in certain contexts. The process of sustainability is a learning processes. It involves negotiation, risk-taking and experimentation.

All of these lessons are transferable to our work as destination professionals, and speak to the benefits of sustainable practices in our profession.

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