3 Levels of Sustainability: Peter Robinson at Retail BC

Suzuki Foundation's CEO and SVI alumni, Peter Robinson, kicked off the 2009 Passion for Retail Conference held last week in Vancouver. The room was packed with some 200 retailers and retail suppliers who were attentively listening to his advice on sustainability as it relates to the retail business. For Peter, true sustainability means "living within the limits of nature." He went on to explain the three levels of sustainability.

As Peter explained, there are no silos; we are completely interconnected and interdependent in this world. To reach a true level of sustainability, we need to look at our businesses from the perspective of three levels of sustainability.

The first and most attainable level is Business Operations. By conserving and reducing, immediate results through cost savings are achievable. Look at the usage of energy, waste and money. Where are opportunities to reduce waste? How is infrastructure used? It starts with simple, obvious actions such as turning off lights when a room is unoccupied or turning off computers at the end of a day. But what about your shipping methods, inventory locations etc.? "Do not be lazy, do not leave money on the table" says Peter. "You need to have a dialogue on sustainability and structure your organization to allow for it. Start with improvements, regular reporting, and overall transparency. Be accountable."

The second level is the Core Business. This is the level of sustainability of your product or service. You may have the greenest practices out there but if your core product or service is not sustainable then your business isn't. You need to look at your footprint and how you can offset it. What about cradle to cradle? Will you take your product back at the end of its lifecycle? If so, how can you turn this into an advantage - can you recycle parts or produce another product with it? At this level, not all businesses are seeing returns yet; however, there will be early mover advantage.

The third and aspiration level is Who You Touch. "To be truly sustainable you have to think about people eventually," says Peter. The environment and issues of social justice are interlinked in the minds of the young people today. How do you influence and report on the businesses in your supply chain? How do you engage your employees? You need to embrace both top down and bottom up philosophies.

I agree with Peter who claims that a creation of a new social norm is inevitable. Business decisions you make today have to consider, for example, tomorrow's policies, different energy and waste fees, and shifting consumer demands.