“What Next for Sustainability?” – An interview with Andrew Winston

Andrew Winston is a globally-recognized expert on megatrends, sustainable business, and how to build companies that profit by contributing to a thriving world. He is currently ranked #3 on the Thinkers50 list of the most influential management thinkers in the world. Andrew’s best-selling books on strategy and sustainability — including Green to GoldThe Big Pivot, and Net Positive — have sold more than a quarter million copies in 15 languages.  

Inc. Magazine included Green to Gold on its all-time list of 30 books that every manager should own. The Financial Times selected Net Positive, co-authored with renowned CEO Paul Polman,as one of the Best Business Books of the Year. Andrew writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, including the HBR cover story, “The Net Positive Manifesto” and the HBR’s “Big Idea” story, “Leading a New Era of Climate Action.”

Andrew’s views on strategy have been sought after by the world’s leading companies, including 3M, DuPont, J&J, Kimberly-Clark, Marriott, PepsiCo, Trane Technologies, Unilever, and Walmart. He has been quoted in major media such as Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, Time, BusinessWeek, New York Times, and CNBC.

What is happening at Unilever in your opinion? Has the purpose company lost its purpose? 

I don’t have special insight into the inner workings of Unilever today. I wrote Net Positive with Paul Polman, who left as CEO in 2019. Since then, some of the rhetoric from the leaders has sounded less committed to sustainability. But it’s big, sprawling company with a culture that’s build up over decades. While writing the book, I spoke to Unilever execs in many markets around the world, and the culture and commitment to sustainability was remarkably consistent. Given how far along Unilever is on so many sustainability issues, and the fact that a very large percentage of employees went there because of its values, I don’t see the culture fading anytime soon. Purpose is pretty deeply embedded in many big brands there, so it should have some legs. 

What are you focused on now?

In the larger sense, combining my personal and professional lives, I’m most focused on the elections of 2024 and, most particularly the US. There is so much riding on fighting fascism and autocratic rule. In the sustainability realm, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year on executive education. There’s a well-documented skills gap – the average level of understanding of our existential challenges (like climate change) among boards and c-suites is not high. So, over the last year I co-developed a hybrid class (online and live sessions) with BCG, and launched a couple shorter online classes with my co-author Paul Polman. 

Is there a direct link between war and climate change? 

I suppose war connects to and affects everything. But, more specifically, the links run both directions. Climate change is already creating refugees, as people leave places that are becoming too hot to live, or because agricultural production dropped from drought, etc. And these are destabilizing forces, which leads to conflict. You could argue that action on climate change is causing stresses. As the world moves from fossil fuels, some powerful interests, like Russia, will lose money and clout. That may drive some more irrational grabs for power.

You’ve written an article titled The Burden of Proof for Corporate Sustainability Is Too High – can you explain?

In short, the assumption in business seems to be that sustainability always costs more. And, if a company that has made sustainability a priority stumbles at all, the press and naysayers declare it just must be because of sustainability. But none of that is particularly logical. Companies that prioritize profits above all fail constantly and nobody questions their strategy or challenges shareholder capitalism. And the idea that sustainability costs more is odd – everything in business costs money. Leaders make choices about where to place capital and what to invest in every day. But we don’t ask about other areas in business, “does marketing pay?”, or “why should we do R&D?” Only sustainability faces these fundamental constant challenges. It’s a mindset issue.

Let’s talk about resilience. What are the 6 building blocks of resilience? And are there more?

For any discussion of resilience, I draw on the work of Nassim Taleb who wrote about Black Swans and focused on resilience in his books Anti-Fragile. Leveraging that work, I’ve written about a handful of elements of resilience: diversity, redundancy (with buffers), hating risk (and loving it, selectively), speed and fast failure, and modular or distributed design. It would take a while to unpack this all, but it boils down to not having all your eggs in one basket.

In the pandemic we learned that our supply chains were not particularly resilient, in part because we’ve built things mainly for efficiency. To oversimplify, the lowest cost way to make something is to produce it at the biggest scale possible – so all of it in one place. And in some value chains, that’s effectively what it looks like (e.g., some components of hard drives used to be made in basically one place in Thailand, which was fine until climate-change-enhanced floods overwhelmed the factory). Resilience means investing in and doing things that seem more expensive up front, but avoid massive costs later.  

Why must businesses resist the anti-woke movement?

It’s a longer conversation, but the short answer is because it’s about rights not politics. Companies developing products and services to appeal to the LGBTQ+ community, for example, are accused by the anti-woke warriors of being political or progressive. But it’s not political to recognize the humanity of someone, try to serve them as a market segment, and to demonstrate support for their rights. It’s similar with diversity efforts. The world is more diverse now, so appealing to, say, people of color is good business. It helps companies attract and retain talent and build connections to customers.  

When the anti-woke voices go after the environmental side of the sustainability equation, it’s egregious in a different way. Attacking companies for climate action is anti-science and harms business. The world is decarbonizing quickly, and companies that want to play in these new multi-trillion-dollar markets are doing what’s smart for the business. It’s hard to ignore the anti-work noise, but it’s what smart companies will do.

The climate data looks very depressing. What should leaders do now to make a difference?

That’s a big question. There’s a large range of what companies – and individuals – can do to reduce emissions and work to decarbonize our society. It’s a long list of actions in across operations, supply chains, R&D, and much more. So I’ll just highlight one aspect that’s critical – policy.

Companies should be leveraging their considerable influence on the policy world to support action on climate. And that includes changing, or leaving, the trade associations that fight climate policy. Microsoft, for example, just completed an assessment of all its associations to see how in line they were with its own climate policy positions.

And, on the individual level, I’ll just quote the great scientist Jane Goodall who recently said the most important thing people can do to support climate action is to vote. Support the candidates who actually want to solve these crises!

Thanks so much. Our readers can learn more about Andrew Winston here >>

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar