Winston Presents Progress on Sustainability in the Business Sector

Andrew Winston delivers his keynote address at the Visionary Dinner.

Andrew Winston delivers his keynote address at the Visionary Dinner.

The 16th annual Visionary Dinner, Southface’s annual fundraising gala, was sponsored by program patrons The Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot Foundation, Interface, The Ray C. Anderson Foundation and UPS Foundation; legacy partner Whole Foods Market; and other leading Atlanta businesses. More than 400 business and sustainability professionals attended. Andrew Winston, globally recognized expert on how companies can navigate and profit from the world’s biggest environmental and social challenges and author of The Big Pivot and Green to Gold, delivered the keynote address.

For 16 years, the Southface Visionary Dinner has featured inspiring and provocative keynote addresses from business leaders and scientists with unique perspectives on sustainability. In 2014, Andrew Winston’s presentation met the event’s high standard by focusing on the progress the business sector has made in sustainability in recent years. His presentation, based on his new book The Big Pivot, highlighted three major trends in business that have led to self-regulation in the business sector.

The first of these trends is the active response of the business community to the new ecological imperatives of this age, citing business leaders’ general acceptance of global climate change and their plans to adapt to it. Winston demonstrated that business leaders are taking environmental impacts very seriously, and many have already taken steps to mitigate their environmental impacts.

The next trend Winston revealed was the global rising cost of goods and services. In Winston’s estimation, increased scarcity of resources has driven the cost of production up for companies, and has, in turn, increased the price of goods for the consumer. This is prompting businesses to look for innovative new production systems to reduce resource usage and waste and to keep costs low and profits high. At this point, Winston cited Richard Branson, globally recognized for his entrepreneurial skill and acumen, who claims that climate change is “the greatest wealth-generating opportunity of our generation.” A core of Winston’s message was the potential of the profit motive to push global society toward sustainability.

Winston claimed that the final trend he has identified is that accountability and transparency have never been more important. Due to a higher level of technological interconnectivity and information accessibility than ever before, companies must respond to consumer concerns with real change to business practices. Now that consumers can research and fact-check corporate business models, businesses are held accountable for those practices.

With these trends, Winston offered his three-part solution to change. He advocated for a change in the vision, the partnership, and the values of businesses. These three shifts represent Winston’s ‘big pivot’. This will require investment of resources, time and energy into sustainable, long-term solutions. In support of Richard Branson’s comment, Winston outlined multi-trillion dollar markets at play, and showed the hundreds of billions already invested in sustainable solutions by companies around the world annually.

Winston claims that the vision pivot requires that companies resist short-term profit focus, set science-based goals for energy efficiency and resource reduction, and pursue “heretical innovation.” In Winston’s estimation, heretical innovation provides some of the greatest opportunity for daring, creative solutions that lead business toward a new economy. Changing the vision of an organization challenges many of the accepted externalities in our current economic system. The partner pivot requires businesses to become  advocates and lobbyists for sustainable lifestyles, to inspire customers and stakeholders to consume less and to collaborate radically. Winston used the example of The Coca-Cola Company’s partnership with PepsiCo on the issue of eliminating HFCs from refrigerants in vending machines to demonstrate the power of collaboration. Citing that this is one of the greatest business rivalries in the world, Winston called upon businesses to put aside rivalries when it comes to innovative solutions and to work together. Finally, the valuation pivot changes incentives, redefines the ROI term and puts a value on natural capital. These three pivot points, claimed Winston, will lead to resilient companies.

Winston’s address finished by citing Georgia’s own titan of corporate sustainability–Ray C. Anderson. Winston asked, as Anderson did: “What is the business case for ending life on earth?” This question capped off an inspiring look at the state of corporate sustainability in the world today. Winston’s address filled the room of more than 400 business and sustainability professionals with a sense of hope for the potential of business to positively affect global sustainability, following directly in the tradition of 15 previous years of Visionary Dinner speakers.

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