January 2011
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Reflections on the Book “Sustainable Excellence”

Marsha A. Dickson
Marsha A. Dickson

I recently took the opportunity to use a long transcontinental flight to read Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabells 2010 book, Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast–Changing World, published by Rodale. When I read a book like this that focuses on business in general rather than a specific industry, I always look for ideas that might be especially applicable to the apparel industry. There are several points in this book that should interest FIBER Journal readers.

The book highlights the work of various companies that are attempting to embed the principles of sustainable excellence into the core of their businesses. Cramer and Karabell start out by defining sustainable businesses as ones that integrate social and environmental considerations into the business along with superior business practices. Stressing a requirement that a new model for business be adopted for sustainable excellence, the authors define five core elements of that model:

1. Think big: create business strategies hat meet big global challenges.

2. Use sustainability to drive innovation.

3. Set the right incentives internally and externally.

4. Embrace the transparent world—and collaborate.

5. Make consumers your partners (pp. 6–10).

These elements involve pursuit of new opportunities that create value for society as well as shareholders rather than simply fixing existing problems. In the course of integrating sustainability into the core of what they do, some companies will redefine their businesses, focusing on the needs they are attempting to serve versus the products they have traditionally been known for making.

A new business model requires consideration of the whole supply chain and the social and environmental footprint of creating products. The urgency for pursuing sustainable excellence is related to ever–increasing strains on the world’s resources stemming partially from the increasing consumer demands of a growing middle class in China, India and elsewhere. Cramer and Karabell explain that

a view that was once the sole province of environmental campaigners—that the world was transitioning away from an era of cheap energy, water, and other materials, and toward scarcity, supply bottlenecks, and higher costs—has now become a core concern for businesses worldwide (p. 102).

Because existing consumption levels are unsustainable for an expanded middle class, it will be inadequate to just tweak products and production lines; instead, business will need to be providing consumers with less “stuff” that has greater value.


From the various companies profiled in the book, including some apparel brands and retailers, readers are provided understanding of the type of work needed for sustainable excellence. I found at least four ideas valuable for apparel brands and retailers to think about:

The critical role of executive leadership—Essential for defining a vision, stressing the urgency, following up words with action including setting performance goals and managing change for long–term success within the company, CEO leaders are also important for working together to set direction for the industry.

The value of stakeholder engagement—While many companies have shied away from nongovernmental organizations because of their tendency to closely scrutinize corporate behaviors and campaign for change, partnering with them can improve the positive impacts a company has on workers and the environment and provide advance insight into how business decisions will fare when shared publicly.

The need for transparency and public reporting—The decision should be not whether to report but how best to do so, given that consumers and other stakeholders have differing interests and concerns. Reporting publicly about efforts to offer products in sync with the principles of sustainability is the only way that consumers will know that a company is doing this. Because they tend to be skeptical of company–reported initiatives, however, third-party verification is valuable for supporting the message. Referencing additional benefits of this type of transparency, Cramer and Karabell remind us that

Communicating consistently and reporting extensively are ways for companies not only to engage consumers, but also to hold themselves accountable (p. 22).

How demand can be stimulated—by providing consumers with education about the effects of their behaviors and encouraging them to change those in support of sustainability goals.

Overall, I liked the book, especially because it focuses on the positive things that companies are doing to address sustainability challenges. Although Cramer and Karabell could profile only so many companies, the apparel brands and retailers discussed tended to be only those we typically hear about regarding sustainability. My questions are: Is the work of a few leaders where the industry’s efforts on sustainability stop? If not, when will we start to hear about others? This is not a criticism of the authors of Sustainable Excellence, rather a push to the industry to take sustainability seriously and for individual companies to share their efforts.

Use the link at the top of this page to give your feedback on whether the apparel industry is doing enough on issues of sustainability. We will publish a summary of the responses in the near future.