3 inspirational corporate sustainability books

As sustainability managers and executives look forward to 2011, here are examples of strategies lighting the way toward sound sustainability practices.

I receive many books throughout the year. Since I know many of us use the year-end for reflection, planning and resolutions, I wanted to offer information about three that I'll be consulting in 2011 to help shape and inform my ongoing coverage about corporate sustainability. There is no particular order to this list.

#1: "Big Business, Big Responsibilities" (Andy Wales, Matthew Gorman & Dunstan Hope)

I picked this book up while I was in New York City in early November, covering the BSR Conference 2010 , which was a gathering of non-profits and business executives focused on corporate sustainability and social responsibility.

The sub-title is pretty compelling: From Villains to Visionaries: How Companies are Tackling the World's Greatest Challenges." The writers hail from the corporate and non-profit sectors: Wales is the global head of sustainable development for brewer SABMiller, Gorman is the director of corporate responsibility & Environment for airport operator BAA, and Hope is the managing director of the information and communications technology practice at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).

Inside, what you'll find is an exploration of what the authors call the seven myths that many people hold about big business' attitude toward the planet. Those myths are:

  1. All big companies abuse the planet and people
  2. Only profit motivates
  3. Rich shareholders have all the power
  4. Business doesn't do any good
  5. Business runs the global show
  6. Business never wants regulation
  7. BIG is always bad

Contrast those myths what that the authors believe are five emerging "realities" that the big business world needs to face when it comes to sustainability, and you have the basis for the lessons in this book, which includes specific examples of what some rather large companies are doing:

  1. Shared risks mean shared responsibilities
  2. Today's challenges are best addressed through collaboration
  3. Being trusted has never been so important
  4. Changes in public policy to address sustainability challenges will increasingly shape the business operating environment
  5. The successful companies of tomorrow are treating sustainability as an opportunity for innovation, not as a risk to be mitigated

#2: "Sustainable Excellence" (Aron Cramer & Zachary Karabell)
The subtitle of this one positions it squarely as a business book, not just a "sustainable business" book: "The Future of Business in a Fast-changing World."

Cramer is the CEO of BSR, a position he has held since 2004. Karabell is a Harvard-educated author who has already written something like 10 business books.

I think this book is worth considering because it attempts to set out a framework for what is meant when we talk about things such as "sustainable excellence" in the first place. Sustainability, in their minds, refers to a company that offers lasting value for three different stakeholders: consumers, employees and investors. One that makes wise use of natural resources and leaves a positive impact on the communities that it touches. The first dangerous trend that the authors point out is the addiction to short-term business tactics that has been reinforced by the recession. In their eyes:

"It is not enough to measure success in purely financial terms. Companies must be excellent to meet the challenge of competition, and because sustainability is the challenge of the future, they must focus on sustainability to be excellent. Those that shape their strategies to meet these conditions will deliver lasting value for investors as well as solutions for the biggest social and environmental challenges of the twenty-first century. That is the essence of sustainable excellence."

There are five core elements to sustainable excellence strategies that are explored through examples discussed in this book. They include:

  1. Think big: create business strategies that meet big global challenges
  2. Use sustainability to drive innovation
  3. Set the right incentives internally and externally
  4. Embrace the transparent world, and collaborate
  5. Make consumers your partners (writer's note: sounds like social media, to me)

#3: Giving Voice to Values, How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right (Mary C. Gentile)
This isn't strictly a corporate strategy book and it came out in the summer of 2010 so it isn't as new as the others, but I was drawn to its message about fighting for what you believe, which I think is entwined with larger corporate social responsibility and sustainability strategy issues.

The author is currently the director of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum and senior research scholar at Babson College. Here's her explanation of why she wrote this book:

"The thesis here is that if enough of us felt empowered -- and were skillful and practiced enough -- to voice and act on our values effectively on those occasions when our best selves are in the driver's seat, business would be a different place. In other words, this book is not about changing who we are, but rather it is about empowering the parts of us that already want to do the right thing."

The author spends some time in the book explaining why the word "values" (and not, for example, "ethics") made it into the title. Ethics, in her mind, are usually some code enforced by rules. The word value, in this sense, "refers to the inherent worth and quality of a thing or an idea." You can see why this book will be instructive to sustainability and corporate social responsibility program manages. It is all about helping others understand the context in which decisions about these things should be made -- both how it impacts society and the business.

Gentile writes: "These are not seamy little dilemmas that we squirm over quietly and try to forget, rationalizing that they are simply the unfortunate 'price we pay' to survive in a particular firm or industry. Instead, they become opportunities to take a step toward building or preserving an organization we be can be proud of."

I hope everyone reading this blog has the chance to loudly trumpet their sustainability and social responsibility values in 2011 and years to come. This book will help you find the right pitch and timbre for your individual voice.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com