Managing Sustainability, Technology, and Profitability

Business Today brought together three powerful executives on November 21st as part of the 43rd Annual International Conference to discuss how businesses can manage sustainability, technology, and profitability while becoming innovative. The panel consisted of Steve Washburn, a graduate of Princeton and MIT and the current CEO of Ramboll Environ, Bruno Sarda, VP of Sustainability at NRG Energy, and Juan Pablo Zamorano, who is originally from Columbia, and after his numerous experiences in marketing and operations, is the current President of Colgate in North America.  

Over the course of the hour long discussion with Nicole Zivkovic, Director of the International Conference, the panelists remarked on everything from how they became interested in sustainability to the change in consumer values that have made sustainability profitable. A central question raised by all three of the panelists in their discussion was how to run a company and maintain financial viability while keeping the company a respectful and beneficial part of society. Zamorano noted that corporate social responsibility has become an integral part of the values of any innovative company. He cited examples from Colgate’s own business practices, such as the company providing education to 100 million children in developing countries on how to properly brush their teeth, developing care solutions to low income consumers, and its efforts to deliver on a promise to reduce consumption of water in the products they produce by 50%. Bruno Sarda noted that sustainability has become a means of filtering a respectable and responsible company, and has hence impacted into financial decisions. “Sustainability is now deeply integrated into business decisions,” Sarda noted. “It’s no longer an afterthought. It’s the center.” This ideological shift has already translated into roughly 20% of companies using capital from socially ethical investing, he said.  

This shift results from an increase in environmental and social education and awareness, and is fueled by consumers’ desire to buy into a brand story when they purchase a product or service. Zamorano emphasized that “it’s about the talent, and what inspires people to work in a company. People want to work in a company that is doing something good for humanity, and is doing something good by selling their product.” Sarda reinforced this point, citing Apple and Google as examples of companies that become more socially and environmentally conscious as part of a strategy to attract and retain top talent in knowledge industries.  

As for sustainability itself, all three leaders strongly felt that successfully innovative companies and business leaders understand how to take something disruptive and transform it into a sustainable change. Steve Washburn, who has had a long career at Ramboll Environ, spoke about the benefits of adapting to this change by focusing on one or a few interrelated innovations. He believes there is “a real benefit to focus” and that some companies are successful “because they’ve been innovative in one thing, instead of diversifying.” Sarda agreed, telling students that making disruptive change something that serves you is truly innovative. He cited the advent of the internet as an example of a powerful, “amorphous force that changed everything.” The panel ended on an inspiring note, with the executives calling students’ attention to the longevity of the sustainability trend as they expect it to be pushed forward by economical and global drivers. Sarda especially encouraged students, telling them not to give into “the thought that you have to be profitable or sustainable. These are not opposing forces, often one drives the other.”