Posted in Marketing, sustainability

Explaining Sustainability: Back to the Basics

Good communications can get people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally.  This ad from Norwegian conservation organisation, Eco Agents, shows a dedicated junior TreeHugger standing up against a group of adults and their very un-sustainable actions.

I bumped into one of my blog readers as my son’s school function the other day. He was happy to see me. One, because the function was dragging on for way longer than anyone had expected and any distraction was gladly welcome; and two, because he needed me to explain what exactly it is that ‘sustainability’ is and what I have to do with it. Today’s blog post is therefore dedicated to you Wamai…I hope this makes it clearer.

Sustainability is the act of doing (or not doing!) what we can to ensure the survival of our natural environment. It is a focus on keeping our world in balance by way of preserving our natural resources so that future generations can continue to live in harmony with our planet. Tobias Webb, founder of Innovation Forum, a London-based sustainability events and publishing business, notes that people think of social issues when they hear “CSR,” and environmental issues when they hear “sustainability.” But in fact social and environmental issues are inter-related. “Deforestation is a great example,” he writes. “It looks like an environmental challenge yet many of the solutions are socially related (governance, corruption, institutions, sustainable livelihoods and regulatory enforcement).”

So companies have caught onto something known as “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. They may have a CSR officer, or maybe a director of corporate citizenship. But at some point, these social and reputational issues merged with the larger question of growth that is sustainable over a long time period, a question fraught with environmental and governance aspects. Investors started asking about “ESG,” environmental, social and governance issues. And companies appointed sustainability directors to make sure all aspects of their operations were on board with new, forward-looking, best practices. Lately, as inter-governmental organisations like the UN tackle big issues like global warming and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), corporations have taken sustainability yet another step forward by helping to lead the discussion and the search for solutions. Companies cooperate in efforts to wipe out corruption and violence in certain areas, using their economic clout. Some are voluntarily cutting carbon emissions and water use.

Above all, there is a growing awareness that companies MUST lead us into a more sustainable future, because no one else will.

Sustainability holds numerous benefits, not only for large organisations, but also for SMEs. Firstly there is the issue of cost. At a time when energy is becoming a scarce resource and costs are rising in many parts of the world, there is a real incentive to increase efficiency. Large corporations are investing considerable efforts in monitoring and reducing their energy usage.  However, whatever size your company is, there are savings to be made.  For example, by installing LED lighting and automatic sensors. Payback on investment typically takes between one and three years, but thereafter your business should be saving money.
Secondly, at an extreme, there is the prospect of fines. Many governments have been introducing tougher environmental legislation and will penalise companies that flout it. Just as there has been a crackdown on governance and ethics in the banking sector, so governments want to see companies behaving responsibly in terms of the environment. Certainly, no matter where a company operates, it has to be increasingly aware of its environmental impact. Thirdly and more positively, there is a significant business opportunity. Major corporates, who frequently employ CSR departments, are increasingly conscious of the need to ‘green’ their supply chains. They don’t want to do business with any companies, of whatever size, that are environmentally and socially irresponsible. So if you can show that your company places a high value on CSR and sustainability, you could be giving yourself a real advantage. If you are greener than your rival bidder, it could just help tip the balance.

7 in 10 Generation Y’ers regard themselves as social activists.  4 in 5 of them want to work in a company that cares about its impact on, and contribution to, society and the environment

Fourthly, sustainability can enhance your reputation and help in the recruitment war for talent. This applies especially to the younger demographic.  So if you are competing for talent against other employers, being a sustainable business can give you a significant head start.

Lastly, no business wants to find itself on the wrong end of a consumer campaign because of an environmental issue. Large companies are more in the firing line here of course. But with social media, issues can grow and spread with bewildering speed. If someone locally (or internally!) takes exception to a wasteful or negligent company practice, you could find yourself with a publicity issue on your hands. This could harm your corporate reputation and also have a serious commercial impact. So making your business sustainable can pay off on many levels. I would encourage the management teams of any company, whatever the size, to carry out a review of the organisation’s environmental policies, energy usage and operational processes. Are there ways in which you can become greener and more efficient? Do you have clear environmental policies that are properly communicated and understood by employees? Are you working with any company that is environmentally negligent and if so can you find an alternative? Companies that take these issues seriously and that integrate them into their way of working will be increasingly better positioned to succeed than their competitors. It really is a win-win situation.

So what does all this mean? As a career marketer, I know that individuals will prioritise sustainability issues if the issues are critical to everyday life. For example, when it comes to climate change: people care about flooding of their cities more than the fate of polar bears in the Arctic or about potential toxins their green vegetables more than international pollution treaties. I work with companies to understand this – and frame sustainability issues so they are relevant and hit home. Good communications can get people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally – the results could have far-reaching effects.

Related Posts

Corporate governance & can our children trust us anymore?

Understanding Sustainability and Marketing

Sustainability Marketing: From Brand Image to Brand Substance

Posted in Marketing, sustainability, Uncategorized

Biomimicry: sustainability drawing examples from nature

Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, speaks to us about biomimicry

I am a naturalista! And proudly so. I belong to a worldwide movement of women of African descent who do not use artificial chemicals on their hair. It is interesting how a seemingly insignificant thing like the choice of hair products can cause such furore. However, for about ten years, thanks to the Internet, a growing number of people have been sharing their natural hair advice via blogs, websites, forums and YouTube videos. The movement has also drawn in celebrities like Lupita Nyongo and Erykah Badu. What is remarkable is how the natural hair choice has span to include other choices like being vegan and gluten-free. More often than not, a naturalista is also concerned about making healthy food and lifestyle choices.

Wouldn’t it be great, therefore, if the sustainability movement would draw the same high-profile attention that the natural hair movement has? After all, the effects of climate change and continued social inequalities are far more serious than the use of chemical relaxers on one’s hair. Perhaps Biomimicry is the solution. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes and policies— new ways of living—that are well adapted to life on earth over the long haul. I recently caught up with Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership who is also a member of Biomimicry South Africa group. She shared her thoughts on how nature has the solutions that Africa needs to innovate around sustainability. The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.

Michelle Obama sports an Afro.  Wouldn’t it be great if the sustainability movement drew the same high-profile attention that the natural hair movement has?

A key area where companies can use the biomimicry principles is around handling their waste. How can they emulate the natural system, which does not understand the concept of waste? One example that Elspeth shared with me is that of ‘Blue Planet’. When Brent Constantz, CEO of carbon capture company Blue Planet, was looking for a way to process carbon dioxide emissions, he found inspiration in nature. Coral reefs and rainforests, the largest natural structures on the planet, are made of carbon. Reefs, in fact, not only sequester carbon, but also reuse their own waste byproducts. When they produce calcium carbonate, they release carbon dioxide. This feeds the symbiotic algae that help support them. Beginning in 2011, Blue Planet has worked with DeepWater Desal, a combined desalination plant, power plant and data storage facility in Moss Landing, California, to mix waste carbon dioxide released by its natural gas power plant with the calcium produced from water desalination. The result is calcium carbonate – limestone – a building material that California’s construction industry needs. And, not incidentally, the same material that coral reefs are made from.

The Biomimicry Institute, a US-based nonprofit, is taking the trend a step further with its Food Systems Design Challenge, encouraging a cadre of entrepreneurs to improve the food production system by emulating techniques and processes found in nature. Hexagro, one challenge finalist, has combined agriculture with the design genius of one of nature’s most famous structures. A modular aeroponic home-growing system, it is made up of individual hexagon-shaped bins that are inspired by bees’ honeycombs. Designer Felipe Hernandez Villa-Roel wanted his product to circumvent some of the environmental problems associated with large-scale agriculture, such as carbon emissions, pesticide use and fertilizer runoff. His solution was to make it easier for people living in small urban spaces to grow pesticide-free food at home.

Elizabeth Achieng’, founder of Ukulima Tech, demonstrating the vertical system at their show farm along Ng’ong’ road in Nairobi – Source: Business Daily Africa

A similar design has been adapted by group of young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs known as Ukulima Tech. Based in Nairobi, the start-up has developed ‘vertical gardens’ from plastic piping, tested soil and manure, aluminum among other accessories all dependent on a client’s specification is relation to the space available. The vertical gardens come in various shapes and sizes but the standard system measures 1.8 feet by 1.5 feet. Ukulima Tech aims to sensitize the society on sustainable use of environmental resources in food production while ensuring that the society is aware of hazards arising from improper utility of farming methods and farm inputs.

There are therefore opportunities for African companies to use biomimicry principles in their operations. Biomimicry thinking helps create products and processes that are sustainable by following life’s principles. These instruct us to build from the bottom up, self-assemble, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, and use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the bio-sphere. By following the principles life uses, you can create products and processes that are well adapted to life on earth, perform well and save energy. Biomimicry can help you create disruptive technologies, that transform your industry or help you build entirely new industries. It can also help you create whole new growth areas, reignite stale product categories and attract both customers who care about innovation and sustainability. Finally, creating biomimetic products and processes will help your company become known as both innovative and proactive about the environment.

Elspeth suggests starting with local sourcing of resources such as local forms of energy and ensuring that you do not have any toxic chemicals in any of your products. Sounds to me like the beginning of a ‘natural’ movement in the corporate sector. Hopefully biomimicry can give the sustainability movement the ‘star-quality’ that it needs to move to the next level.

Related Posts

Bright Perspectives from Africa

Sustainability Marketing: From Brand Image to Brand Substance

So what will you do now?

Posted in Uncategorized

Bright Perspectives from Africa

Earlier this year, I attended the first Sustainable Brands Africa conference in Cape Town, South Africa. I have written about this amazing experience in the past but perhaps I failed to mention some of the wonderful friends I made while at the conference. KoAnn Vikoren, the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands couldn’t have put it any better, ‘the people you meet at Sustainable Brands are both smart and nice!’ For me, Nancy Mancilla is both these things and more. I first met Nancy at the Cape Town conference and had the pleasure of getting together again with her, and her husband, a few weeks ago in Nairobi. I love Nancy’s simple and refreshing take on sustainability reporting. She also shares my passion for contextualising the issues around sustainability. She shares some of her views in the article below. Enjoy the read. Muthoni

By Nancy Mancilla, ISOS Group CEO & Co-Founder

The world has turned attention to defining what growth means in light of heightened security issues, climate change and human diaspora. Over the years, we’ve all struggled to find ways to assess responsibility and determine roles needed to advance strategic issues – sustainably. Global leaders finally came together at COP21 in Paris last year to sign across their commitments to reducing harmful environmental impacts and more recently, delegates from Japan and across Africa met in Nairobi met to discuss strengthening ties towards sustainable development and this week, the U.S. and China formally signed onto the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

What does this mean for Africa? Due to our interdependencies, implications are broad. As seen during our trip to Nairobi a few weeks ago, the country is experiencing astronomical growth and as one friend put it, “Kenyans have their day job and then they have their hustle.” These are the people that will feel the trickle down of policies set at the top, but craft creative solutions to delivering on economic growth. However, according to hard scientific evidence, there is need to act fast in order to sway our destiny and avoid the harmful effects of climate change by 2030. It is in this spirit that, our organisation, ISOS Group decided to venture into unchartered territory. As of late 2014, we were granted the opportunity to lead a consortium with AMC International in delivering GRI Certified Trainings in Sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa) and have since led two groundbreaking extended practitioners trainings that also delve into determining what’s relevant, designing due diligence schemes, building sustainability governance structures, the basics of greenhouse gas accounting and reporting. With each training, we’ve seen how incredibly well positioned the African continent is to shape the future of sustainable development – to “Africanise Sustainability”.

With that, it’s important to understand how Sustainability or CSR has been perceived: For those who have flocked to our trainings in Nairobi, the concern was shared that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been perceived historically, as strictly giving.

When corporate negligence has occurred in the past, charitable giving in the name of CSR, was extended as a method for covering the wound, not necessarily healing it.

CSR has been seen as limiting; a term that hasn’t instituted real accountability for long-term impact. “Africanising Sustainability” and defining what it means in the broader context of operating on the continent can accelerate adoption. Getting started may mean coming to terms with a few issues that are felt by all nations consistently:

  • Rampant corruption in all facets of leadership is still a primary concern of the people. This issue is heightened as other developing nations move in to Africa to rope in precious resources. Using frameworks, like GRI or CDP make addressing governance a precursor to any other barometer of performance. Therefore, publishing sustainability disclosures could result in a transition to more formal systems that weed out opportunities for corruption.
  • The scientific community has already proven that human activity, especially by big businesses, is the climate change culprit. For many in Africa, climate change has impacted civilisations, migratory patterns and support systems. Reminding the world as to the historical context and what that could mean for big business moving forward is important for the continent. Similarly, broad awareness and education in the marketplace could present opportunities for leading the change. However, it’s hard data and other performance metrics that should be the common platform for communication. Understanding industry standards and best practice is essential to collecting and reporting impacts, mitigation efforts and successes.
In social sciences, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action
  • Impacts caused through international trade have a chain reaction, which can no longer be disguised. For instance, a fair trade coffee company identifies a resource rich, scalable coffee plantation in Uganda, low-cost labor is migrated to the area. Growth is ignited and various informal industries blossom. Without the proper policy infrastructure in place to control growth in a systematic manner, human rights are quickly degraded; labor rights, gender, children’s rights are impacted. As with the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’, Fair Trade initiatives also have unimaginable damaging effects on the wellbeing of labourers. Regular engagement across the value chain is therefore crucial.
  • Expanding diversity and inclusion opportunities could put to rest age-old tribal struggles and possibly, bring about long-term peace. Social scientists have leaned toward an informal 3 Generation Rule; it typically takes three generations to overcome the mindsets that have led people into acts of war and genocide before true peace prevails. It’s our perception that Africans are tired of being tied to these sentiments and ready for change. Assessing diversity and laying out equal opportunity measures could aid in establishing a fair playing field to build from.

In summary, we feel that using the Sustainable Development Goal’s could help anchor organisations in what they aspire, while also bridge the gap between what the international community has committed to and what action means on the ground. Tying in proven non-financial disclosure frameworks, like the GRI or CDP, could help measure progress and create communication channels beyond expectations.

Related Posts

Is there an African word for Climate Change?

Corporate governance, ethics & how to expose the corrupt

Posted in Uncategorized

Shared Value: The new meaning for sustainability?

Jonathon Hanks, Managing Partner at Incite, South Africa speaks on Shared Value

What does ‘Sustainability’ really mean? I personally love the word and the effect it has on people when I tell them that I am a consultant in the field of sustainability. Their eyes glaze over and they nod meaningfully, taking on a somber demeanour. Somehow ‘sustainability’ bigger and more important than your regular old consulting. And I am not alone this little display of significance. Many companies use the term ‘sustainability’ loosely to mean a wide range of activities within their organisations.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are the most popular. This is when a company responds to social needs through philanthropic – cash or non-cash – contributions. These include donations to community organisations and employee volunteer programs. Increasingly, however, sustainability is being taken to mean the actions around addressing business risks and challenges by promoting good practice on a range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. These may include human rights, ethics, worker health and safety, corporate reporting and environmental management. For example, engaging your stakeholders on environmental and social issues is part of ESG. These initiatives give rise to a large body of data that is made available to investors, whether they want it or not.

Source: Incite


However, according to Incite, a consultancy based in Cape Town, South Africa, it is more useful for organisations to determine the role of their sustainability strategy. I recently had a chat with their Managing Partner, Jonathon Hanks, who presented the concept of shared value (SV). This is a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business. In their experience, an effective sustainability strategy allocates resources to optimise the delivery of value to society, whether social or environmental. This is the primary role of the sustainability strategy. The shared value concept was perhaps first defined in the Harvard Business Review article “Creating Shared Value”, by Professor Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer. The authors identified three ways in which shared value can be created: by defining markets in terms of unmet needs or social ills and developing profitable products or services that remedy these conditions, by increasing the productivity of the company or its suppliers by addressing the social and environmental constraints in its value chain and strengthening the competitive context in key regions where the company operates in ways that contribute to the company’s growth and productivity. In other words, developing a commercially-viable product that genuinely improves the lives of the poor, changing a manufacturing process to reduce energy or waste at a scale commensurate to your operations and a partnership that opens your supply chain to support large numbers of smallholder farmers are all shared value initiatives.

Shared value initiatives tend to be growth drivers, with measurable social and financial benefits. This makes shared value particularly relevant in fast-growing emerging or frontier markets.

For example is a partnership between Microsoft, Fit Uganda and GOAL, an NGO that has been working in the agricultural sector in northern Uganda engaging with conflict affected rural communities to improve food security and agricultural incomes. Since 2013 GOAL has facilitated agricultural businesses to increase productivity through access to improved agricultural inputs and services and link farmers to market and weather information, which is vital for production. A key component of this has been to increase the functionality of an existing agri-business mobile platform to a full trading platform (virtual market place) that includes, among others, commodity and weather information, farmer profiling, a farm management record system to increase farmers financial and trading history and credibility. GOAL worked with a local company, Fit Uganda in partnership with Microsoft who provided technical expertise, business planning and strategy skills as well as software and technical solutions. GOAL provided market linkages, increased access to farmers and marketing services. The results of the cooperation were a significantly increased and secured platform or virtual trading place with over 115,000 users. Also smallholder farmers have increased access to goods and services such as buyers, financial services, insurance, inputs and equipment. Fit Uganda has improved business performance and opportunity for growth and Microsoft benefits from direct market linkages and more use of technology.



The term sustainability has meant different things to different people for more than 20 years and it is likely that this will remain the case.

A sustainability strategy’s particular allocation – between CSR, ESG and SV – will depend on the way the company perceives the risks and opportunities arising from the societal context in which it operates. If the company aims primarily to manage risks, reduce costs and improve its reputation, it focuses on CSR and ESG. If it wishes to enhance growth through socially inspired innovation, it will tend towards shared value in its allocation. The choice depends on the company’s strategic positioning. Competencies developed through sustainability include value chain agility, product or market innovation and developmental partnership. These competencies are of increasing interest to investors who take a longer-term view on their investments.

As for me, I continue to be a ‘very-important-sounding’ consultant in Sustainability & Marketing.

Related Posts

Leveraging on sustainability to create brand love

Understanding Sustainability and Marketing