The Monsanto experience holds an important lesson: If corporate sustainability strategies are narrowly construed, they will fall seriously short. It is not enough to develop revolutionary technology with the potential to leapfrog currently unsustainable methods. Antiglobalization demonstrators have made it apparent that if corporate expansion is seen to endanger local autonomy, it will encounter vigorous resistance. Multinationals seeking new growth strategies to satisfy shareholders increasingly hear concerns from many quarters about consumer monoculture, labor rights, and cultural hegemony. As long as multinational corporations persist in being outsiders—alien to both the cultures and the ecosystems within which they do business—it will be difficult for them to realize their full commercial, let alone social, potential.
Today corporations are being challenged to rethink global strategies in which one-size-fits-all products are produced for the global market using world-scale production facilities and supply chains. Even so-called locally responsive strategies are often little more than pre-existing corporate solutions tailored to “fit” local markets: Technologies are frequently transferred from the corporate lab and applied in unfamiliar cultural and environmental settings; unmet needs in new markets are identified through demographic (secondary) data. The result is stillborn products and inappropriate business models that fail to effectively address real needs. As GE CEO Jeff Immelt recently noted, existing large corporations will be pre-empted by more nimble local players from the developing world unless they learn how to innovate from the ground up—what he calls “reverse innovation.”38
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About the Author
Stuart L. Hart, author of Capitalism at the Crossroads, is the Samuel C. Johnson Chair of Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. Professor Hart is one of the world’s top authorities on the implications of sustainable development and environmentalism for business strategy. He has published over 50 papers and authored or edited five books. His article “Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World” won the McKinsey Award for Best Article in the Harvard Business Review for 1997 and helped launch the movement for corporate sustainability. To read Stuart’s complete biography, click here.