Willard’s 5 stages

Posted on June 15, 2007


Bob Willard identifies five stages of an organisations adoption of sustainability. I think these are very useful – it helps give context to problems and decisions. I’m re-looking at the skip and the Green RFP, wondering where my profession and organisations fit on this continuum.

To skip to the bottom, it may be presumptuous to assume we are in either 4 or 5, but I like this distinction:

Stage 4 companies “do the right things” so that they are successful businesses. Stage 5 companies are successful businesses so that they can continue to “do the right things.”


Stage 1: The company feels no obligation beyond profits. It cuts corners and tries not to get caught if it breaks the law or uses exploitative practices that cheat the system. It ignores sustainability and actively fights against related regulations.

Stage 2: The business manages its liabilities by obeying the law and all labour, environmental, health, and safety regulations. It reactively does what it legally has to do and does it well. Emerging environmental and philanthropic social actions are treated as costs, projects are end-of-pipe retrofits, and CSR is given lip service.

Stage 3: The company moves from defense to offense. It realizes it can save expenses with proactive and incremental operational eco-efficiencies, cleaner processes, and better waste management. It recognizes community investment and social marketing can minimize uncertainty, enhance its reputation, and help maximize shareholder value. However, sustainability initiatives are still marginalized in specialized departments — they are tacked on as “green housekeeping,” not built in and institutionalized.

Stage 3 is about incremental, continuous improvements in eco-efficiency.

Stage 4: The firm transforms itself. It re-brands itself as a company committed to sustainability and integrates sustainability with key business strategies. It captures added value from breakthrough sustainability initiatives that benefit all stakeholders. Instead of costs and risks, it sees investments and opportunities. It makes cleaner products, applies eco-effectiveness and life-cycle stewardship, and enjoys competitive advantages from sustainability initiatives.

In this stage, different business models become apparent. A key to resource efficiency is to understand products as a means to deliver a service to a customer. For example, people do not want energy, they want the service it provides such as heat or light (eg “products of service”).

Stage 5: Driven by a passionate, values-based commitment to improving the well-being of the company, society, and the environment, the company helps build a better world because it is the right thing to do.

Willard argues that drivers that trigger transformation between stages are key.

It is a transformation from Stage 3, not a transition. Transformations are not trivial. Moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4 requires internalizing sustainability notions in profound ways, both personally and organizationally.

Sustainability-based thinking, perspectives, and behaviours are integrated into everyday operating procedures and the culture of the organization.

What about Stage 5? Stage 5 is very different, but simultaneously very similar. About 90% of what Stage 4 and Stage 5 companies do looks the same. They both deploy business strategies that respect the environment, the community, and the ongoing business health of the firm. Motivations differ. Stage 4 companies “do the right things” so that they are successful businesses. Stage 5 companies are successful businesses so that they can continue to “do the right things.”