• Breakfast_of_Champions_or_Goodby_Blue_Monday_Kurt_Vonnegut_unabridged_compact_discs
  • Kingfisher
  • L'oreal
  • Prosper
  • vonnegut

Big Idea Breakfast of Sustainability Champions

Posted by in blog, Homepage February 16, 2015

“We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.”

This was the epitaph to novelist Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s book ‘Breakfast of Champions’ and seemed an apt way to frame Futerra’s recent ‘Big Idea Breakfast’. We brought together three of the biggest sustainability champions in the world: Richard Gillies, Sustainability and Communications Director of Kingfisher, Andy Wales, Director of Sustainable Development at SAB Miller and Alexandre Palt, Director of CSR and Sustainability of L’Oreal. Our premise was that our big sustainability challenges urgently need big ideas – like ‘Net Positive’, ‘Prosper’ and ‘Sharing Beauty With All’ to help evolve and transform business models, products, services and creatively engage staff, stakeholders and customers. The stage was thus set for suitably stirring inspiration and insights over free-range egg rolls and fairly traded tea.

Held under the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution, we wanted to showcase the strategic foundation and creative communication of big ideas that Futerra has helped develop and illuminate, and to do it through the eyes and experiences of our clients. We were joined by a full-house audience of hand-picked sustainability colleagues, all of whom have also vividly demonstrated collective, collaborative courage and commitment in driving forward the agenda of our time. So what did we learn?

Well, every business needs a big idea. Without a big idea now, you are not preparing your business for the future. So any business that expects to have a future needs a big idea! You can achieve almost anything if you truly connect to your business purpose and create a big idea to bring it to life. Keep it simple, memorable and punchy. The substantive, credible detail of targets, KPIs and measurable data can sit beneath the headline name.

It is much more important for your big idea to be a long-term cultural ‘fit’ for your organisation’s psyche than to be ‘sexy’. The idea should be positive, not guilt-ridden and align with your core commercial strategy. Ultimately the right big idea is also about unleashing enormous opportunity through your value chain (up to $1B worth according to one business’s calculation). If it fails to do this then it will be forced to compete with all the other myriad ways of adding value to your business. This also means you can bust the perception (right or wrong) that sustainability automatically costs more. That a big idea doesn’t only lead to incremental environmental efficiency savings (e.g. on energy) but accelerates sustainability-led innovation of better products and services. There’s plenty of scope for that! As Vonnegut puts it in his book: “The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.” 

You should also actively consult with and listen to external stakeholders, what are their needs and expectations of you as a business? From your suppliers to buyers, host communities to campaigners – learning from them opens you up from isolation and insularity, creating opportunities for alliances and partnerships in the process.

Nor should you assume your colleagues will instantly ‘get it’ – sustainability types are a weird bunch, your team doesn’t necessarily think like you (or us!). In order to realise the above benefits you have to fast-track the people in your business into the same place and frame of mind as yourself. This is where the narrative coherence and creative engagement of a big idea is absolutely critical. Communications reinforce the sustainability journey, making it real, relevant, tangible and most of all personal for people. We need everyone enthused and involved to make the changes we need.

Perception is nothing without performance however and measurement and tracking progress of your big idea is also crucial. Directly incentivise continuous improvement of your products and services through personal performance bonuses for staff.

And finally you must talk to your customers, reconciling the gap between people’s declared aspirations as citizens with their actual behaviour as consumers. Big ideas for sustainability must resonate with your customers if they are to deliver their intended competitive and commercial benefits; customer choice, loyalty and advocacy. Sustainability must be, as in Futerra’s own mission statement, ‘desirable’ not perceived as ‘complicated, ugly, smelling bad and green’. Failure to do this and take your customers with you can fatally undermine the longevity and efficacy of a big idea.

So in summary:

1. Do it today. For tomorrow. Every business needs a big idea for the future.

2. Talk to people. Consult beyond your business for thoughts and ideas from friends and critics alike.

3. Make it commercial. It’s obviously not just about the money, but ideas that drive sustainable growth and opportunity get more air-time internally.

4. Get fit. Ensure the idea reflects your business culture and psychology.

5. Sell it in. Inspire, engage and mobilise your people, get them excited about both the collective potential and their individual contribution.

6. Crunch the numbers. Measure the important stuff. Track progress. Report.

7. Spread the word. Build a movement to change the world.

Cutting across all of the above is the combination of strategic muscle and creative magic that we at Futerra know from our experience lies at the heart of every great big idea for sustainability. The health of business, people and the planet is at stake here, our big ideas may be precisely the mechanism that delivers more humanely for humanity. Or as Vonnegut says about his anti-hero Kilgore Trout, the opposite may also be true:

“It shook up Trout to realize that even he could bring evil into the world — in the form of bad ideas.” 

You can download a pretty .pdf version of this blog here.

Futerra wishes to extend our heartfelt thanks to our esteemed panellists for giving so generously of their time, insights and ideas.

To receive invitations and information about other Futerra events please contact stuart.duncan@futerra.co.uk

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