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Companies and MBAs Test New Sustainability SWOT

At last week’s Net Impact conference, WRI challenged teams of attendees to come up with what was essentially a “mashup” of megatrends and environmental challenges. The teams then engaged in a friendly competition to see who could create the most innovative corporate sustainability strategies for a hypothetical company modeled after LEGO.

The teams began by looking at global environmental challenges (like clean energy, climate change, and waste removal); then connected these hurdles to other big trends (such as urbanization and social inequality); and finally, assessed strategic actions for the model company. The result was a handful of very clever corporate sustainability strategies. One team suggested that 3D-printing and materials science could enable the company to produce toys in growing markets using bio-based plastics, thereby reducing shipping costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Another team thought that creating visual instruction guides could help overcome language barriers and promote affordable green building design and construction. And the winning team proposed partnering with companies like Coca-Cola and non-profit organizations like 5 Gyres to reuse plastic waste in the world’s oceans (similar to what Method and United by Blue are currently doing).

The proposals varied greatly, but all the teams had one thing in common: They used WRI’s new Sustainability SWOT (sSWOT) as a guiding framework to shape and communicate their strategies.

WRI’s New Sustainability SWOT

The sSWOT, which recently wrapped up its “road test” phase and will be widely released later this fall, is a guide that reframes the traditional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis to focus on environmental challenges. Developed in partnership with companies in WRI’s Next Practice Collaborative, the sSWOT emphasizes collaboration with new strategic partners. It highlights key questions to ask and answer with colleagues (using the familiar SWOT framework) to translate environmental sustainability into real business risks and new opportunities.

Prior to the Net Impact conference, WRI invited a dozen companies across multiple sectors to “road test” the sSWOT within their own organizations. They used it to complement traditional SWOTs and other efforts, such as strategic planning, goal setting, scenario analysis, or visioning exercises. Some of the companies who helped pilot the sSWOT included:

  • Target: A team at the North American retailer looked at how long-term climate change impacts will affect agriculture and water. The sSWOT helped frame a conversation with colleagues from Target’s food business about the company’s mid-term priorities for sustainable food initiatives.

  • Delphi: The automotive parts supplier used the sSWOT to assess its waste-management strategies and options for achieving “zero waste to landfill.” Delphi subsequently found opportunities to coordinate with customers who have achieved zero-waste goals (like General Motors) in order to identify vendors and build local infrastructure for recycling.

  • Sanepar: This Brazilian water and wastewater company tested the sSWOT to evaluate the implications of climate change on its future activities. The company’s team identified environmental challenges creating risks or opportunities, like those related to greenhouse gas management, adaptation to climate change, and energy efficiency. Looking for others who shared those risks or opportunities, the company identified potential partnerships, such as working with a local electric power company to coordinate efforts related to climate change adaptation.

The Forthcoming sSWOT Guide

WRI is currently incorporating feedback from road tests and expert external reviewers into the final sSWOT guide. We expect to release the final version later this fall.

We welcome companies interested in learning more about the sSWOT—and applying it—to contact Eliot Metzger (

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