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Sustainability Means Business

Sustainability Means Business

Six weeks ago, Net Impact partnered with Unilever to convene more than 100 students at Imperial College of London in the UK for the first in a series of Net Impact chapter events around the world designed to mobilize the next generation of sustainable business leaders. Co-hosts and chapter leaders Ela Rose and Jared Smith share their thoughts on the event and its implications for the future of sustainable business.

By Ela Rose and Jared Smith, Imperial College of London 

As with any accelerating mass, small steps move us more quickly toward an end goal. Just as sprinter Usain Bolt's first awkward, choppy strides deliver an extreme amount of power, eventually transforming the object at rest into a fleet, finely tuned champion by the end of the race, business is just starting to see which companies are hitting their strides fastest. This is the critical stage, those first steps.

Last month, on May 22, the newly minted Net Impact Imperial College of London chapter co-hosted its inaugural event with Net Impact London, as part of a larger partnership between Unilever and Net Impact. A mixed cohort of more than one hundred students and university staff, working professionals, and Unilever representatives tackled the challenge of delivering solutions for corporate sustainability. Net Impact's CEO, Liz Maw, introduced keynoter Karen Hamilton, Unilever's Vice President for Sustainability, who spoke about the company's sustainability ambitions as outlined in its Sustainable Living Plan.

In her introduction, Liz challenged the audience to catalyze a movement of young people - next generation leaders - who are going to transform the world through business. Two more outstanding presenters rounded out the presentation portion of the evening; Nico Sergent, Head of Development of hydrogen car startup company Riversimple, and Sarah Collins, the founder of Wonderbag, an energy saving, heat-retention cooking bag, each delivered entrepreneurial inspiration for the discussion portion to follow.

Ten groups of participants were then challenged during the breakout session to create a movement around how to inspire more young people to drive new business models that rely on sustainability as their engine for growth. The question was left intentionally open-ended, and after just thirty minutes of brainstorming, participants explained their novel ideas ranging from a Sustainability Apprenticeship, to a Sustainability X-Factor styled event.

What struck us as we listened to the various pitches fly around the room was the fact that this was not some sort of test (and as students we're well accustomed to being tested rather than listened to), but rather an open invitation from a major corporation to a dialogue about what sustainable models might look like, both as they relate to Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan and to other companies. And no, the irony of including a representative from a hydrogen fueled car company on the panel is not lost on us as we write this.

A call to action for a generation

The public statements by Mr. Polman, Unilever's CEO and champion of sustainable business, calling on the young thinkers of the world to deliver on the sustainability front are the calls to action our generation needs. Courage and leadership are a powerful combination, and the Imperial students demonstrated plenty of both while pitching half-baked transformational ideas to one of the largest corporations in the world. Unilever did its part by providing the platform, contextual frame, and support to make this a successful evening. It will be interesting to see where Unilever takes the ideas generated in the pilot program of its campus initiative; the company plans to roll out future events in other cities around the globe.

If sustainability is to speak the same language as business, then it's time we move towards the common space and create a new system that's at the same time valuable, essential, and meaningful for society. Those of us with a sustainable business mindset believe in the importance of long-term thinking and business model (re)analysis to generate profits in a resource-constrained world. This change, if it is to be realized, must come from innovative thought coupled with established institutions eager to embrace a different kind of operating model. Radical change cannot be the focus, as it too easily disregards the lessons of the past that current businesses are built (successfully) upon.

Business as usual, on the other hand, cannot continue for myriad reasons, from the simple adapt or die philosophy to more abstract systems thinking and global limiting factors. So let's embrace the efforts by Unilever to engage in this type of dialogue, because no matter where you place the finish line for business sustainability, this is a pretty good start.

Want more? Check out the event's social media buzz. A big thanks goes to all participants, support staff, and especially the Grantham Institute for Climate Change for all their dedicated help and motivation.