Posted on May 30, 2013
Self-righteous environmentalism and results-driven management have led to sustainability fatigue. Leaders need to admit we’re at sea and try to refresh sustainability
The last century has yielded many societal transformations. Important among them has been the ever-growing interest in finding ways to live sustainably in our environment. “Sustainability” as a concept has become mainstream. There are few business leaders nowadays who feel they can ignore it completely. For some it remains ‘merely a CSR issue’ but for those with deeper understanding, it is central to the value creation process.
Yet, there is also a growing sense of defeat gnawing at many of those involved in environmental work today and some frustration among sustainability managers in major corporations. Can we get past this? Can our social consciousness and business framework for sustainability be productively enhanced in urban, fast-moving, techno-driven, unstructured world of the 21st century?
There is much talk about environment and sustainability but ask 10 people what these terms mean and you’ll get 10 different answers.
Here is my attempt at a definition: sustainability is the new politics of co-existence in the eco-sphere on which we all depend. This definition has a number of implications. It acknowledges the obvious – that we ultimately depend on our ecosphere for our livelihoods, continued prosperity, value creation and our existence.
It also recognises that sustainability is political. Businesses must have public and political support to be sustainable in the business sense and increasingly that support cannot be achieved unless the business is also sustainable in social and environmental terms. Sustainability is therefore first and foremost a socio-political issue that cannot be separated from the many societal questions that we have to tackle.
And it is a new politics. Nobody can deny that our economies, our businesses, our lifestyles and our societies have repeatedly shown themselves to be unsustainable and subject to periodic collapse. How do we find the politics of sustainability?
Sustainability is not about nature, science or ideology but about people, and the choices societies make. Effective sustainability practices develop benefits that people want and values that a broad range of people feel comfortable buying into. Building a sustainable business does not, therefore, require just a change of business attitude. Rather it means extending the mindset of creating and delivering value to include the ecosphere on which customers – and indeed all of us – depend. If we are only creating value at the expense of the environment, then we are creating no value at all.
Creating a vision of a positive and tangible future
An essential but difficult task is to rid ourselves of the habit of putting guilt at the centre of the sustainability narrative. We must end the continuous bombardment with messages of gloom and doom about the catastrophic consequences of our current lifestyles.
Sustainable business cannot be the result of some kind of guilt trip that results in management throwing a little bit of money to make them feel better and to look good in the annual report. Rather we need to set about the much tougher task of creating a vision of the sort of future that we are offering people. A future that can credibly promise what people care about – jobs, security, social cohesion, improving living standards – in an ecosphere that remains viable.
A humble approach
We face many, complex social, moral, economic and financial issues – maintaining and replenishing our ecosphere being one of them. Business and environmental leaders should have the courage to admit that we are at sea and that we need to work together to find solutions. Neither a self-righteous environmentalism nor the fashionable ‘results driven management’ that demands clear, numbers-obsessed solutions to complex and largely obscure issues will suffice. The best leaders will recognise the value of a human and humble approach that recognises the extent of our ignorance and works with others to explore new directions.
Results before ideology
On all sides of the debate there are far too many sacred cows still waiting to be slain. If we are to achieve results, we must leave zealotry and ideology behind. Some environmentalists object to the globalised capitalist system. Some business leaders object to any challenge to the ‘profit-maximisation at any cost’ business model. We should avoid approaching these issues as polarising ideological battles. Where are the pragmatic ways forward?
The issues at stake are so substantial and the routes to improvement so complex, costly and wide-ranging, that we cannot achieve our aims without working closely with all parts of society. Success in achieving sustainability requires a mindset that is open, inclusive and co-operative, and not tribal.
Earning our living
Sustainability is too important to have to rely on charity, philanthropy and government handouts of taxpayers’ money. The environment should generate wealth in its own right as an industry that employs people and contributes to economic and other wellbeing. Environmental organisations cannot rely on handouts but need to earn their way by providing tangible value. Conversely, corporations should not perpetuate indefinitely the culture of philanthropy but must demand value in return for money invested – albeit using much broader and more appropriate definitions of value than has hitherto been the case.
We have embarked on achieving a massive cultural change that will drive new lifestyles, new products, new ways of creating wealth: a totally new definition of what constitutes human progress. This cannot be achieved in one day or even several decades. But it is being achieved. Continually refreshing our views of, and approaches to, sustainability ensures that it will continue to be achieved in tomorrow’s world.
This article first appeared in The Guardian