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New “sSWOT” Guide Can Help Boost Corporate Sustainability

Sarah Cohen, an intern with WRI's Markets and Enterprise Program, also contributed to this blog post.

Do you have colleagues who roll their eyes when they hear the words “environment” or “sustainability?” The sad truth is that environmental issues are not always a passion for everyone at every organization. However, climate change and other environmental challenges are shaping tomorrow’s markets—so how do you draw connections between sustainability and business value for those who may not see it right away?

Today, WRI is releasing a guide to address this question and many more related to corporate sustainability. The guide—which was road-tested this summer by a dozen major companies like Target, Method, and Staples—adds a sustainability component to the traditional Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis that corporations have relied on for more than 50 years. Our sustainability SWOT, or “sSWOT,” is designed to help corporate sustainability champions engage colleagues, customers, suppliers, and even competitors to identify links to business risks and brainstorm new business opportunities.

Why the Business Sector Needs the sSWOT

Sustainability seems to be squarely on the agenda for many companies today. A survey report by the MIT Sloan Management Review with the Boston Consulting Group showed that thousands of companies have incorporated sustainability into their management agendas over the past decade.

However, sustainability is too often an isolated agenda item that’s viewed as competing with other priorities. In many cases, it fails to get the attention (or the internal investment) that other agenda items get. Or sustainability is thought of simply as a philanthropic initiative, intentionally disconnected from the company’s core interests. What remains clear is that businesses need the know-how to more fully integrate sustainability into strategic and everyday business decisions.

That’s where the sSWOT can play a vital role.

sSWOT Emphasizes Collaboration for Bigger, Bolder Strategies

The sSWOT is a simple but powerful concept. Most businesspeople are at least somewhat familiar with the Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats framework—the sSWOT puts a new twist on this familiar tool to catalyze conversation among colleagues and across companies. All 12 companies that road-tested WRI’s sSWOT said the guide’s recognizable format was extremely helpful in creating a “common language” for starting an engaging conversation about environmental challenges and opportunities.

The sSWOT can be used in many different ways. For example, companies can apply it to:

  • Translate insights about environmental challenges like climate change and resource scarcity into risks or opportunities companies can act on;

  • Get others motivated about opportunities to invest, innovate, and collaborate on environmental challenges in ways that increase business value;

  • Convince colleagues and decision makers (for example, senior managers, CEOs, CFOs, or Boards of Directors) that environmental challenges are not as far removed from companies’ core interests as may be assumed.

Major Companies Road-Tested the sSWOT

The variety of companies that road-tested the sSWOT are testament to its versatility. A few examples included:

  • Staples used the sSWOT to frame a workshop with several of its large corporate customers. Together, they shared insights about the big trends shaping their sustainability strategies in the coming years and identified opportunities to work closer together to share experiences.

  • Delphi used the sSWOT to assess strategies for “zero waste to landfill” ambitions. Among their learnings, the company recognized a strategic opportunity to work with customers. By engaging companies like General Motors (GM) and Ford, Delphi can combine expertise on innovative waste management practices.

  • Danone Brasil used the sSWOT to engage colleagues across the company in an assessment of whether its sustainability plans for the next five years covered important risks and opportunities to innovate.

These are just a handful of ways businesses can utilize the sSWOT.

The sSWOT can also be used by the world’s future business leaders—especially in business schools. Thousands of MBA students are currently doing SWOT analyses as part of their coursework or consulting projects. Adding an ‘s’ to the SWOT at the education stage can ensure that sustainability is more fully incorporated into the business mainstream moving forward.

Many corporations already do a decent job in tackling certain sustainability issues. Now it’s time to put more ambitious and comprehensive ideas into action. With the release of the sSWOT today, WRI is looking forward to seeing corporate sustainability champions use it to open minds, open doors, and drive innovation at scale.

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