For Sustainable Business, Long-term Strategy is Essential

Thousands of people live in floating communities on Tonle Sap Lake. The lake and its surrounding floodplain is among the world’s most dynamic ecosystems and most productive freshwater fisheries. (Photo:© CI/Andy Wilson)

After a recent trip to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap watershed with CI staff, Frits van Paasschen, president and CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, reflects on the role that businesses must play in sustainable development.

I love to explore the great monuments of the ancient world. It’s hard not to marvel at the genius, the productivity, and the audacity that created the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall or the aqueducts of Rome. In their time, the societies that gave rise to these wonders must have seemed permanent and invincible, which of course they weren’t. Today, the ruins stand as silent reminders of both their feats and their demise.

I recently went to Cambodia with leaders and scientists from CI, Starwood’s global partner in environmental sustainability. My goal was to deepen Starwood’s cooperation with CI. We saw examples of their work to preserve the jungle of the Cardamom Mountains and the rich ecosystem around the Tonle Sap watershed. I could not resist taking time to visit a few of the thousand year-old Angkor temples of “Tomb Raiders” fame. The waters and ancient civilization are connected. Just as with the Nile, the fertility of this delta area fed and enriched the civilization that created these wondrous structures. Experts say it was a drought that spelled the end of prosperity as well.

The old ruins let us peer across great timespans that we ignore in our working life. At Starwood, we might discuss operating agreements that reach out 50 years. Generally, though, in business, it is simply too hard to project more than a few years ahead. In an uncertain world, business strategy is about defining how to compete rather than having a detailed blueprint for the coming decades. When I led planning at Nike, I described strategy as more like a sporting event than building a bridge. You know your strengths and your goals, but on game day, winning is all about reacting to your opponent and adapting your game.

So, walking in the ruins and looking at the environmental destruction in Cambodia got me thinking about time. In the 1970s when B-52s carried out their carpet bombing, the land was one immense jungle. From the air, you can still see rows of craters left by explosions. After the war, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge meant a relentless hunt for protein in the form of any animal within gunshot. Poverty today means overfishing and more slash-and-burn. Climate change — along with dams as far away as China — are changing the age-old cycle of flood and renewal.

It’s actually amazing that anything has survived all this. Still, you wonder how much longer Mother Nature can hold out. What will be left in another forty years? Or a thousand?

The work that CI and others are doing is both hopeful and daunting. Hopeful in its expertise and resourcefulness, daunting in the face of its obstacles. It occurred to me that we’ve rediscovered the Buddhist notion — still revered in the temples here — that all things are interconnected. You can’t save the ecology without the economy. People, nature and technology all share the same web. NGOs like CI need to work alongside government and business to sustain their efforts at sustainability.

Companies likewise know that it is good business to be responsible. As a business leader, I can tell you that passion for being green among associates and customers grows by the day as the world changes. And it’s amazing what people can accomplish with the right spirit. It’s not just that we can save money and save energy. People want to buy from and work for a company that shares their values.

But it’s a race against time. And, since we live in the Age of Globalization, it’s all or nothing. For people to admire our works a thousand years from now, we need a living planet; how we ensure it will define our epoch. This isn’t likely to be the result of a single ingenious effort. In an interconnected world, what each of us chooses matters to all of us. And we need leaders with an eye on the future. Our monuments will be what we preserve, not what we build.

Frits van Paasschen is the president and CEO of Starwood and sits on the Executive Council of CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB). Starwood — whose brands include W, Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and Aloft among others — is also a member of CI’s Business & Sustainability Council.

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