This was the thought-provoking question posed at a conference I went to yesterday held by Green Mondays to discuss how companies could make their businesses more sustainable.
Kodak, a household name in film photography for over hundred years, is in financial difficulty as a result of its failure to adapt to the digital age. In contrast, Skype launched in 2003 as a pioneer internet-based telephone communications company and was recently acquired by Microsoft for $8.5bn.
Companies need to adapt to a world of rising commodity prices driven by climate change and resource depletion. After falling by 1.2% per year during the past century, commodity prices have tripled since 2002.
The conference highlighted a range of companies, such as Marks & Spencer, Pepsi and Ikea, which are making good progress on resource efficiency and waste reduction through their sustainability strategies.
Eminent environmentalist Jonathon Porritt told delegates that he had “enormous admiration” for companies such as these. But he warned that even these firms are only at the start of the journey. Their corporate sustainability strategies are at present focused on increasing efficiency and saving money – smoothing the rough edges off ‘business as usual’.
To their credit, all three companies acknowledged they have a long way to go. Martyn Seal, Pepsi’s sustainability director in Europe, admitted that none of its products were sustainable in the way they are currently produced.
Mr Porritt said it not possible for a company to be sustainable in an unsustainable society. The solution requires business leaders to do much more to create preconditions for sustainability in wider society. Chief executives need to educate shareholders and politicians that current business models, with their emphasis on short-term profit and infinite growth, cannot continue.
Business leaders also need to act on the social impacts of our unsustainable economy, such as the growing gap between rich and poor, Mr Porritt said.
The conference highlighted examples of more sustainable products and emerging alternative business models. For instance, Nissan and other carmakers are – at long last – putting serious money into electric vehicles (ENDS Report, February 2011).
The high capital cost of electric cars is a sizeable obstacle to their take-up. Companies like Better Place, through a network of battery-switching stations, hope to offer a way of making electric cars affordable and practical.
UK fuel cell company Intelligent Energy has formed a partnership with Suzuki to develop fuel cell motorbikes.
All are good examples of companies striving to be the Skypes of sustainability, not the Kodaks.