Champions of Sustainability Convene for 5th Annual Conference

worldleaf.JPGby Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

On October 2nd, 2008, top women in sustainability from Fortune 500 companies, financial institutions, and non-governmental organizations gathered together at JP Morgan Chase for the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future’s 5th Annual Businesswomen’s Sustainability Leadership Summit. This year’s theme -Leading Change: How to Champion Sustainability in Your Company.

Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future is committed to the mobilization of businesswomen in support of social responsibility and to advancing sustainable development by giving women in the workplace a voice in the sustainability debate. Participants at this year’s conference exchanged ideas, experiences and best practices concerning sustainability while networking and forging relationships with similarly-minded women.

Moderated by Professor Anat Lechner, Clinical Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at NYU Stern, the main panel focused on how to build a culture of sustainability, even in the face of the current economic crisis. The companies represented on the panel-AIG Investments, American Express, JP Morgan Chase, and Intel-embodied the many different paths to a corporate culture of sustainability. For some companies, like Intel, the sustainability culture begins at the very top, with a CEO who makes it a priority for the organization based on his or her personal beliefs. For other companies, like JP Morgan Chase, the effort emanates from the initiative of individual employees within the company, which then pervades the company’s culture. Still others, like American Express, recognize that a commitment to sustainability is a key to attracting and retaining top talent.

A critical component of the discussion concerned strategies for incorporating and ingraining sustainability initiatives in the corporation’s culture. Marlys Appleton, Vice President of Sustainability for AIG Investments, stressed the importance of participation in all the levels of the company. She mentioned allowing each constituent class to determine how it will comply with the sustainability goals put in place so that each has the flexibility to come up with a suitable strategy. Lybra Clemons, Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion at American Express, stated that while people are generally supportive one “must communicate the business case” and help those at all levels understand why sustainability is good business. Shelly Esque, Director of Global Corporate Citizenship of Intel, agreed. “Intel culture is about DATA….We have to clearly show that performance improves, that we save money by recycling, [as a result of a sustainability culture.]”

After the main panel, attendees split into smaller workgroups to answer questions posed and brainstorm as to how to affect change within their respective organizations. Following spirited and insightful discussions in the 3 to 4 person groups, the participants reconvened to share
solutions and strategies.

Finally, keynote speaker Gail Blanke, motivational speaker and author of the book “Between Trapezes” took the stage to talk about “How to be a Champion for Change,” and the importance of having a greater vision. “Build the castle first, because that’s where the magic is. That’s the best of us.” To do that, she mentioned, we must let go of the old vision of the world, of all the “life plaque” that clogs up our life.

Ms. Blanke advised to “adopt an entrepreneurial spirit” in everything we do: to be passionate, risk-taking, agile. “We have to be light on our feet, ready to dance. If we stand in one place too long, we become flatfooted.” She also warned against letting our own interpretation of other people’s words and actions affect us. “As Einstein said, ‘Ultimately there are no facts; it’s all just theory’…you can make up the interpretations that propel you forward.” She wrapped up by telling us to continue to fly high, as “there is no force that can keep you from the thrill of yourselves.”

Empowered and inspired, the participants, speakers and guests gathered again to exchange thoughts and business cards, as well as insights and stories, over some good wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Corporations that initiate and maintain programs of corporate responsibility and environmental stewardship hold the keys to the future. And, with the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future leading the way, the women who are developing and promoting the sustainability culture within those corporations are the ones who are forging those keys.