Strategy for sustainability

Strategic Direction

ISSN: 0258-0543

Article publication date: 20 September 2011


Werbach, A. (2011), "Strategy for sustainability", Strategic Direction, Vol. 27 No. 10.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Strategy for sustainability

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Strategic Direction, Volume 27, Issue 10

Adam WerbachHarvard Business PressBoston, MA2009ISBN: 978-1-4221-7770-9226 pp.

The sudden upsurge of ecology over recent years in all aspects of our lives has unquestionably created a new competitive framework for companies that are run with a truly strategic management approach. In a traditional SWOT analysis, we could say that the current situation is an opportunity vs a threat, depending on the ability of the manager who has to deal with it. Adam Werbach, with his undeniable communicative ability and professional experience, takes the view that this variable offers an opportunity, and has written a book that is passionate yet nonetheless a bit of a curate’s egg.

The book’s main merit unquestionably lies in its defence of a company’s long-term sustainability as a front-rank strategic variable, which obviously enough requires the system on which it rests to be sustainable as well. To put it another way, if there is no pond, there are no water lilies. The author contends that this system’s sustainability goes beyond merely being ecological and must impact on the social, economic, environmental and cultural spheres. This argument, which extends the traditional view of sustainability beyond ecology, is based on numerous entertaining and illustrative examples drawn from the author’s extensive experience in consultancy work.

Another of the book’s merits is undoubtedly its ability to galvanise action, its gut optimism. Stimulating and sometimes even poetic sentences populate the entire book (“The Chinese have a saying that the best time to plant a tree is a hundred years ago. The second-best time is right now”, p. 15; “A business relies on a healthy society in which you and others are planting trees for the future. Are you doing your share?”, p. 54; “What I learned back as an eight-year-old, is that anyone, no matter how inexperienced or lacking in rank, can contribute to effect change greater than one-self”, p. 154). The feeling the reader gets from these words is gut positivism, a vague idea that could be put into words as “I wish we could have businesses that were run like that”. Like any utopian book, this optimism undeniably makes a positive contribution to entrenching new ways of seeing things.

The less accomplished side of the book is obvious, especially for those who have done some academic reading. The book is easy to read, full of good intentions, and is packed with curious and entertaining examples, but it is based on ideas and concepts so lacking in originality that one is left constantly feeling that it is simply the same things said in a different way. Thus, on page 39, for instance, the author tries to justify the difference between a classic built-to-last strategy and his strategy for sustainability, but the impression the reader gets is that the latter is nothing more than a particular case of the former. Perhaps the book would have gained in strength and credibility if the author had made the effort to connect up its major contribution (extending the concept of sustainability beyond ecology to build it into the corporate strategic process) with the consolidated models of strategic analysis, to which the book adds little.

If, for example, the reader is familiar with the classic Competing for the Future by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad (which is now more than 15 years old), then he or she is unlikely to find original ideas in Strategy for Sustainability, which add much to one’s intellectual experience. The reader constantly gets the feeling that the conceptual framework is the same, and the issue of sustainability is but a particular case. Unlike popularisation books, such as the famous Theory Z by W. Ouchi or The Knowledge-creating Company by I. Nonaka and H. Takeuchi, in Strategy for Sustainability one misses the academic references which would reinforce ideas that, on occasion, are set out in a somewhat frivolous way, based solely on the personal experience of the author who should have made the effort to check the scientific perspectives that appear in numerous academic journals that deal with exactly the same issues he addresses. For instance, the highly extensive literature dealing with the issue of ethics and management, or innovation and leadership, would have had a part to play in this book but they are not mentioned once, and leave the reader with a constant sense that the book lacks rigour.

The message that the book sends out is powerful and clear: either managers try to achieve long-term sustainability or the whole system, and with it the companies they manage, will collapse. Hence, concern about sustainability is not a question of being well-meaning and humanistic but rather it is an issue for managerial responsibility and the search for efficiency (Miles et al., 2009; Soltani et al., 2009; Värlander, 2009; Warren et al., 2009). However, the arguments put forward in the book to defend this powerful message are a little naive, a little new-age. Indeed, any reader who does not have a heart of stone cannot help but feel emotionally committed to these ideals, but will be somewhat disappointed with the logical arguments used to justify the sustainability priorities. These arguments do exist yet are rather more academic and tedious to explain, which would appear to be why Adam Werbach does not try to set them out. For example, the book contends that a strategy based on sustainability is economically profitable and will therefore be adopted by companies seeking long-term success, but it does not address the issue of the huge gap that in the absence of adequate legal regulation would be left to opportunistic enterprises which are looking for shorter-term results.

In our view, the book actually belongs to that important group of popularisation books about management which seek to convey, in a simple way and with eloquent examples, the theoretical concepts that academic journals (which are not often read by managers) are unable to get across to the public at large. As in all these books, catchy names are used for analysis and techniques, names that are intended to popularise them (North Star goal, TEN cycle, STaR mapping) but which to any reader with some experience of the literature seem somewhat pretentious and overblown given that their originality is highly limited.

The first chapter sets out what is to come in the rest of book and the model underlying it. It puts forward a basic connection between company strategy and the earth rules, based on the lessons that nature offers to anyone who wishes to learn from them (p. 20).

The second chapter is entitled “Mapping your opportunities” and is suspiciously similar to, but does not mention, a traditional SWOT analysis, save with a more galactic name: STaR mapping. The author argues here that a thorough analysis of society, technology and resources is essential in mapping out a strategy for sustainability.

The third chapter presents the North Star goal as a key factor that should guide our business decisions and actions. The reader cannot fail to wonder, given the features the author attributes to the North Star goal on page 72, what the difference is between this and Hamel and Prahalad’s strategic intent.

Chapters four, five and six deal with the implementation of the strategy for sustainability. This is done through the TEN method: using Transparency to execute your strategy, Engaging individuals, and Networking of sustainability partners.

Chapter seven looks at leadership as the fuel that drives the whole process. Like the rest of the book, it is packed with interesting and eloquent examples but it lacks references to the extensive and thorough research that has already been done into transactional leadership and transformational leadership, which are really what this chapter is about, even though they are not mentioned.

To sum up, Adam Werbach has made a significant and successful effort to try to use the concept of Strategy for Sustainability to build bridges between the ecological-humanistic and strategic-business visions. His ideas undoubtedly contain useful insights that convincingly demonstrate how these two perspectives are by no means incompatible. He also manages to convey all this in a readable and enjoyable way. The only thing lacking is a little more rigour, a forgivable sin given that the book is intended for a popular and not an academic audience.

Reviewed by Joaquín Camps, University of Valencia (Spain).

This review was originally published in Management Decision, Vol. 49 No. 4, 2011


Miles, M.P., Munilla, L.S. and Darroch, J. (2009), “Sustainable corporate entrepreneurship”, International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 65–76

Soltani, E., Lai, P-C., Phillips, P. and Liao, Y-Y. (2009), “The triangular supply chain relationship: labour dispatch agencies, hospitality sector, and flexible workers: the Taiwan experience”, Service Industries Journal, Vol. 29 No. 10, pp. 1317–39

Värlander, S. (2009), “The construction of local authenticity: an exploration of two service industry cases”, Service Industries Journal, Vol. 29 No. 3, pp. 249–65

Warren, L., Patton, D. and Bream, D. (2009), “Knowledge acquisition processes during the incubation of new high technology firms”, International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 481–95