Transforming businesses to deliver sustainable value: My experience of a Sustainability Leadership Laboratory

Maria-Jose Subiela, Head of Strategic Advice and Solutions at BITC, gives her impressions of a Cambridge Sustainability Leadership Laboratory, run by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

Maria-Jose Subiela, Business in the CommunityTwelve years ago I swapped a law career for a career in sustainability. Now I head up the team at BITC that offers advisory services where I work with many companies from different sectors, helping them design and walk their responsibility journeys.  I think that's given me real insight into what companies are doing to make themselves more sustainable.  And over recent years I’ve noticed a clear shift in the discussions I have with them.  Businesses aren’t focusing just on reputational risk management any more, but have moved on to opportunities for value creation.

I think the pace and scale of this transformation could be a lot faster - I’d expected a more radical integration of environmental and social considerations in products and service development by now.  But things are moving in the right direction. Successful businesses, like Heineken, GSK, Sodexo and others are thriving in the marketplace by creating purpose-driven products and services that enhance their profitability, and companies are changing the way they work.

One CEO known for leading a business transformation is Paul Polman of Unilever - people even talk of a "post-Paul Polman world".  But as his example, amongst many others, shows, transforming an existing company requires great leadership.  It is a hard task. Where does the leadership in a company, their journey to this transformation from? How can they lead their company to rethink the way in which they operate, to move to a new business model? 

These are some of the questions answered at a Cambridge Sustainability Leadership Laboratory, one of which I was recently fortunate enough to attend.  There, I spent two valuable days focused on rethinking value and transforming business through discussions, practical tools and inspirational case studies.

Where are CISL coming from?

Much of CISL's work is framed by ten interconnected tasks required from business, government and finance to lay the foundations for a sustainable economy.  These are laid out in a great thought piece, Rewiring the economy, which I urge everyone with an interest in sustainability to read. 

In the Laboratory we focused on just one of these tasks: innovating to deliver great value. To do this, businesses need to rethink their business models and devise growth strategies that take into account resource constraints, which is what we looked at.

What we did

Much of the Lab was focused on tools designed to support companies in identifying ways to create value sustainability.  We used The Cambridge Value Mapping Tool and The Sustainable Value Analysis Tool.

I found great value in the simplicity and efficacy of these tools, which essentially work to structure a conversation.  As we applied the tools to real and imaginary companies I saw how using them forces you to think about all relevant stakeholders and thoroughly consider what value has been created for each, what value has been missed or destroyed and hence what are the opportunities to create new value and  commercial opportunities.  

From my experience of supporting companies in their own transformative journey, it seems an effective approach. The idea of facilitating a journey that the company will need to embark on itself is a good one, as  solutions to sustainability questions can never be pre-fabricated and delivered ready-made to a company. Instead, the business' decision makers will need to rethink its purpose, how the company operates, and how this translates to the products and services they offer.

Even in a laboratory set up, it was fascinating to see how many ideas and possibilities we generated in a short period of time. The discussions with professionals from different industries were very nourishing and this reinforced my conviction that to achieve real transformation companies need to connect with society in the wider sense.

The more varied the perspectives involved the more innovative the outcome will be. A meaningful dialogue involving an array of internal and external stakeholders can help a business rethink itself to be more profitable through creating more value to more stakeholders.

Real life examples

One element I particularly enjoyed was discussing case studies on disruptive innovation and hearing about innovative business models including recycled aluminium, net positive environmental impact and customer engagement through sustainability.

An example that particularly interested me, having just learned to drive, was a new car company called Riversimple.  Riversimple aims to sell mobility as a service, not a car as a product – so tackling some of the challenges around urban mobility and urban pollution.

The first cars to be “sold“ from 2018 will be two seater, ‘network electric’ car, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Customers will buy a service that includes the car and all its running costs, and when they change the car, the used model goes back to Riversimple, ensuring a closed loop use of resources.

The whole business model, including local manufacturing and distribution, has been designed to pursue the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport while balancing and protecting the benefit streams of all stakeholders. Riversimple is a for-profit business so these benefit streams include return to investors. I found this a fascinating example of how businesses can provide new solutions to existing challenges by totally rethinking the way in which they make money.


The Laboratory reaffirmed my belief in the huge commercial opportunities offered by rethinking business models. But it also helped me in my understanding of how businesses can avoid having to think alone.  In fact, involving key stakeholders helps the rethinking process to be more creative and efficient, and to ensure value creation for those stakeholders and the business.

Through my experience of supporting business to integrate responsibility, I’ve seen that the more inclusive the dialogue a buisiness has, the more voices the business is prepared to listen to, the more creative and radical they are prepared to be, the more the business will be able to reinvent itself.