Sustainable business models - how companies reconcile growth with sustainable development (18 April 2013) - by Petra Kummer

26 Apr 2013 06:20 | Nasya Dimitrova
Sustainability and Sustainable Development – buzz words in everyone’s mouth. But can a bank put sustainability into practice? Is a company in the field of luxury goods able to build a sustainable business model? And what can a business school do to reconcile economy and sustainability aspects?

A fascinating panel discussion, jointly hosted by the International University of Geneva (IUC) and the Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT - Lake Geneva), brought clarity to some burning questions. The complex topic could be tackled from different angles thanks to the good representation of services, luxury goods, an international organisation and a university institution.

Dr Claude Martin, Chancellor of IUG and Chairman of the International Sustainability Innovation Council of Switzerland recalled the initial definition of the concept: We should meet the needs of the current generation without comprising the needs of future generations – so the need to live within the biophysical limits of our planet. Over the last decades, the discussion on economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability has shifted from purely minimizing the impact to beating new paths and turning the economy.

Focussing on ethical banking, fairness and transparency, Martin Rohner, General Manager of the Alternative Bank Switzerland (ABS) outlined the social responsibility of a value-based bank. What matters to ABS is where the money comes from and what it is used for, which requires a detailed assessment of the entire business model of a potential customer. Its traditional core business are ecological, social and sustainable financings, namely in the fields of renewable energies, social housing or ecological construction. In terms of transparency, all loans are published including amount and purpose! A divers board, gender balance and equal pay make the difference. And living the values in daily life stretches to using bikes or public transport. Concessions have to be made to the demands of the modern customer, but key is to stick to the extremely strict ethical standards – hence, no extraordinary business growth over the last 20 years. However, since the 2008 financial crises, people have started to care more about ethical banking.

Can sustainability and luxury goods go hand in hand? Since the creation of her company, the guiding theme for Giselle Rufer, Founder, President & CEO of the Swiss watch brand Delance, has always been: Respecting the tradition and passing on its flame without preserving the ashes - and this involves particularly the respect for people, for their talent and for our blue planet. The woman entrepreneur underlines her commitment to women empowerment, not least because women are more aware of the need for sustainability. For the production of the Delance masterpieces, the finest materials and most talented craftswomen are selected, while making sure that raw materials come from a controlled production wherever possible. No excess, no waste and a minimalist marketing, those parameters express Gisele Rufer’s conviction that sustainability is a way of life.

Looking at the landscape of business schools, the message to embed sustainability at the heart of business is more important than ever. Carolina Moeller, WWF Head of Business Education One Planet Leaders Team, presented a joint programme of WWF and IMD that brings together cutting edge business and sustainability knowledge. Based on the 3-legged stool planet – profit – people, it concentrates on the question of how sustainability can drive innovation and growth. This requires a radical and creative rethink of your business purpose and strategy, of processes and technologies, of your markets and audiences. The One Planet MBA creates an understanding of why we do need action, what the business opportunity is on an organisational level and - last but not least - makes the business leaders aware of the power in their hands to drive change: by bringing their values more into the business, a new balance can be achieved.

For sure, there is no absolute state of sustainability, but we are all called upon to contribute to solving some of the threatening world problems. Companies need to realize that they are able to shift the market! And the consumer power should never be underestimated: regulations have often been put into place following the driving force of some courageous pioneers.

There is no better way to sum up this need to think differently than by the following anecdote:
A teaching assistant went running to Albert Einstein. „Excuse me, Sir, it's about the test you have just handed out. It’s the same as three months ago. “Yes,” said Einstein, “but don’t you worry, I changed the answers.”
A lively and interactive Q&A part confirmed that this was another outstanding OWIT event and a rewarding and enriching experience for the participants!

Petra Kummer
Communications Team Volunteer

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