Sustainability and teen angst?

WNSF.jpgDr. Sharon Nunes from IBM, opened her remarks on her panel at yesterday’s annual summit of the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future (WNSF) in NYC, noting that in her career as an engineer, she rarely finds herself in a room full of women or with a long line at the bathroom. But at this event, she was in the majority.

A group of around 200 women (and yes a handful of men) working in corporate responsibility and sustainability gathered to share best practices and discuss ways to personally drive change in their companies, including panelists from Walmart, DuPont, IBM, Pfizer, TIAA-CREF, and the White House. The White House? Yes, today even the federal government’s challenging itself with new sustainability goals. The women who presented talked about how they are each applying the specific strengths and capabilities of their industry and organization to specific global challenges – from using technology to conserve water to public-private partnerships in healthcare to leveraging purchasing power to drive chain in the supply chain.

My main takeaway from the event was that a lot of the large companies that have been at this sustainability thing for a long time are facing similar challenges – moving to the next level of maturity along the CSR curve. We’re moved past some of the biggest hurdles of making the business case internally, we’re tracking and reporting on performance metrics, and we’re engaging directly with environmental groups who we used to shy away from. We’re working to engage our employee bases to embed these concepts into the culture and uncover new innovative ideas in the process. I wouldn’t say that we’ve quite reached “adulthood” yet – there’s still a ways for all of us to go – but perhaps we can say we’ve made it squarely into the “teenage” years.

I don’t know about you – but I personally don’t have a desire to go back and relive those years (and not just because of memories of bad hair and braces). Those years were hard. You didn’t know everything yet, but you knew enough to get frustrated about what you wanted to change. You had an idea of where you wanted to go, but were not yet sure how to get there. Your parents and teachers just told you that it was going to take a whole lot of work. And in order to succeed, you had to start taking bigger risks.

And that’s where I see us at Intel and a number of other companies today – how do we deal with these truly complex long-term challenges society faces, from education to climate change? How do we continue to find ways to reduce our environmental footprint now that our long-hanging fruit is gone? How do we drive sustainability considerations more deeply into strategy and business decision-making processes? How do we look at old problems in new ways to identify new product and market opportunities?

There’s a lot to discuss and learn in this space – and WNSF’s new venture into social media is allowing summit participants (and you as a virtual participant) to continue the discussion. Check out the discussion threads on the WNSF facebook page and add your thoughts – wherever you find yourself today on the CSR/sustainability learning curve.

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