Industrial Collaboration for a More Sustainable Future

Professor Peter Ball, Director of Business and Community Engagement at the University of York, talks about how viral industrial change could lead to greater sustainability in businesses


You’re heading off for a weekend city break, enabled by the panoply of apps in your pocket. Without a second thought you’ve shared your location, family details, financial information, maybe even some of your own goods and property.

People share because of the value they get from free or lower cost goods and services. The speed of this change has been viral.

Businesses have the capacity to do the same. In fact they must do so as they vie to find new ways of creating value, in response to global resource constraints.

A few companies and sectors already do this: beer brewers for example have an impressive history of sharing, supporting and collaborating. Craft brewing is an incredible brand success. The sector is vibrant. A healthy brewing industry in turn helps individual companies, in a virtuous cycle of sharing.

Despite handwringing punditry, the west is now demonstrably cleaner, safer and healthier. Not just human health, but also financial health, environmental health and the richness of the society that we operate in. We must continue to develop the health of our industry to be competitive, resilient and to contribute to society.

But how?

Businesses use and need tools to help them develop. There is an imperative to spread better tools to help all companies develop.

Any tools must be intuitive to use and give value. Versions of the tools we need already exist, only requiring simple modifications to give them the ease of use industry needs. They do not have to be a highly integrated, software based, etc. They simply need to be intuitive and provide value.

To illustrate: recently industry has witnessed the spread of Lean Thinking and associated tools. Lean initially helped companies reduce waste. Now it helps add more value. In recent times more and more of us move jobs regularly and take it for granted that the simple value-adding tools used at our new employer are essentially the same as those from our last employer.

Leading companies will in future persuade us to only buy what we need. Try buying more than you need at Vitsoe to test this out. But not on Black Friday as on principle they will be shut. Other leaders ensure that the water leaving their factories is cleaner than when it entered. As the purposefulness in business thinking grows, more companies are moving from less harm, lower accidents, etc to providing greater good to society such as job creation, spreading wealth or environmental improvements. Returning to brewing, Tap Social Movement brews and sells criminally good beer by supporting those with prison sentences to gain skills and start-up businesses for themselves.

Pioneering businesses that have emerged from the sustainability sector are using the trust they have earnt to command strong market positions. They have built on the efficiency agenda to lead on innovation, resilience and brand value. Stop for a moment and name a company that is leading in the social or environmental space. I’m guessing that you trust that company and believe that the company has a long-term future.

All will have staff who have devoted significant personal energy. Many will not have invested significant capital getting there. They are ambitious, relentless and, being complimentary, obsessive. In the boardroom of those companies, sustainability leaders justify their plans based on return on investment. The conversations are not about being “less bad”; they argue for “more good”. To name a few companies: Toyota drive our efficiency ambitions, Unilever help us consumers to use less water, M&S keeps our clothes in circulation, Natura give us pleasure in knowing their ingredients, the Co-op help us make ethical choices, and so on.

So perhaps we should not help them? Maybe we should help others who find such performance improvement challenging?

We could help them sense the need for change and provide the tools they need to transform, to be healthier. We could help the majority of industry, starting with those receptive to change, build on Lean Thinking to add value to the environment around them and add value socially. Lean has shown us simple tools are powerful. This course of action would have mass impact. Those ambitious leading companies curiously also secure their long term economic sustainability, recreating the virtuous cycle we see in the brewing industry.

Did you find this think piece interesting? We’ve got some questions you might find interesting too.

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