TED Talks: Sustainability and Business

Lucy Hattersley

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Looking at your business from a sustainability angle can be a transformative experience. Here we look at three inspirational TED Talks from business executives and environmental experts on how sustainability sits at the heart of what they do.

1) Profit’s not always the point

Who: Harish Manwani, COO of Unilever and a director of Whirlpool Corporation

You don’t expect the COO of Unilever – one of the oldest and largest multinationals, as famous for its corporate acquisitions as its wholesale production of washing powder – to spend time ruminating about ethics.

Harish Manwani is, by his own candid admission, a child of The Invisible Hand theory of economics (that personal gains in a free market benefit wider society and that governments should not interfere with business). Manwani joined Unilever in 1976, where this theory was, he reminds us: “the entire model of capitalism.” The Invisible Hand was “the economic model that you and I did business in and, in fact, continue to do business in.”

It is this contradiction that makes Manwani’s passionate TED Talk about ethics and sustainability so engaging. Many business leaders like to position themselves as environmentally ethical, but precious few stand in Harish Manwani’s shoes.

“The model that, at least, I was brought up in,” states Manwani “was one which talked about what I call the three G’s of growth” He lists these three Gs as:

1) Growth that is consistent, quarter on quarter.

2) Growth that is competitive, better than the other person.

3) Growth that is profitable, so you continue to make more and more shareholder value.

To this list, Manwani says businesses now have to add a fourth G:

4) Growth that is responsible.

“Define a true north,” he says, “things that are non-negotiable whether times are good, bad, ugly. There are things that you stand for.” Manwani claims to run the largest hand-washing program in the world. “We are running a program on hygiene and health that now touches half a billion people. It’s not about selling soap; there is a larger purpose out there.”


2) What I discovered in New York City trash

Who: Robin Nagle, Anthropologist and author

“Who cleans up after us?” This question is asked by anthropologist Robin Nagle. You expect this TED Talk to be purely metaphorical in nature, but Nagle delivers a remarkably down-to-earth speech about social considerations.

Nagle started from the ground up, working alongside the New York Department of Sanitation. “I took the job as a sanitation worker,” says Nagle. “I didn’t just ride in the trucks now. I drove the trucks. ”

Nagle powerful speech touches on waste, on sanitation, on environmentalism and on dealing with the stigma that comes from tackling the difficult jobs. Above all, it’s a speech reminding C-suite executives not to be afraid of getting their hands dirty. “In our effort to reconfigure how we as a species exist on this planet, we must include and take account of all the costs,” Nagle insists, “including the very real human cost of the labour. And we also would be well informed to reach out to the people who do that work and get their expertise.”


3) Let’s go all-in on selling sustainability

Who: Steve Howard, Chief Sustainability Officer at Ikea

Few companies have driven an eco-friendly stake into the turf as hard as Ikea. The Swedish furniture giant has installed LED lights across its stores, invested heavily in wind farm production in the United States, and committed to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Given the scale of Ikea, Steve Howard (it’s Chief Sustainability Officer) has a real responsibility. Ikea alone is estimated to use 1 per cent of all wood used commercially around the globe.

Howard’s speech reveals Ikea’s insights into the relationship between a company and its customers.

“We know from asking people from China to the U.S. that the vast majority of people care about sustainability after the day-to-day issues” says Howard. “The day-to-day issues of, how do I get my kids to school? Can I pay the bills at the end of the month? Then they care about big issues like climate change. But they want it to be easy, affordable and attractive, and they expect business to help, and they’re a little bit disappointed today.”

Howard’s TED speech is a rallying cry to business leaders to serve its customers better. “We have choices,” says Howard. “We can make products that are beautiful or ugly, sustainable or unsustainable, affordable or expensive, functional or useless. So let’s make beautiful, functional, affordable, sustainable products.”