Changing the way we think about sustainability

Dan Gray – Commscrum London

How businesses approach sustainability is perhaps the biggest brand and communication challenge of our time – and one that most corporations are getting very wrong. Rather than try and re-hash my thinking, I’m just going to post an extract from my new book.

Take a look and see what you think. I reckon it picks up rather neatly on Kevin’s theme of working from the inside out, and poses some interesting questions about the where the balance of power ought to lie in communicating a credible commitment…

As man’s role in climate change has become clearer, so sustainability has become largely synonymous with environmental concerns – essentially, how can we continue to grow and develop as a society without causing irreparable harm to our ecosystem?

It’s also a term that has tended to be used almost interchangeably with the many others (CR, CSR, Corporate Citizenship etc.) that organisations use to denote activities and investments designed to illustrate their status as responsible enterprises.

Frankly, both usages get in the way of a proper and useful understanding of what it means to be sustainable. In its original and broadest sense, sustainability is simply about longevity – the capacity to survive and prosper over generations.

In business, that naturally includes dimensions of ethical behaviour (you’re not going to do very well if your stakeholders don’t trust you) and environmental stewardship (likewise, you’re not going to be able to operate efficiently if you’re reliant on ever scarcer and more expensive natural resources), but it’s about much more than that.

Asking how a business is socially and environmentally responsible and how it is sustainable should be two completely different questions. The latter is infinitely broader in scope, essentially: why will you still be in business in 50 years’ time?

Understanding sustainability in these terms takes it out of the realm of the sandal-wearing, tree-hugging, save-the-whale brigade and into the realm of what sceptical business leaders really care about – running a successful business. What’s more, it fosters a completely different mindset about how to tackle the issue. Sustainability ceases to be seen as a separate agenda, and is instead positioned as an integral part of business strategy and operations.

And that’s how it should be seen. Ultimately, sustainability is not a discrete function, programme or initiative. It’s a cultural thing – a fundamental belief and way of thinking that encourages us to consider the long-term implications of our actions. If you’re fond of soundbites, think of it this way:

CR without HR is just PR.

Lindsay Uittenbogaard Commscrumming from Delft

Sorry Dan – I’m finding it difficult to absorb the meaning here because I can’t get over your first statement about something being “perhaps the biggest brand and communication challenge of our time”.  There is no biggest or most important challenge when it comes to communication because there is no single, over-ruling perspective from which to make that claim.

As communicators, we support the objectives of our sponsors and they can present very diverse communication challenges, from awareness to positioning, behaviour change to information process efficiency.  You might argue that the most difficult communication challenges are where relevance of the topic to the audience is low and where the interest of the sponsor is also low: i.e fulfill requirement for all staff to return old hardware following an IT infrastructure upgrade by end Q2.   God help us!  Some communication can be so boring and insignificant, can’t it?

I get from your extract that the sustainability message has anchored incorrectly in the minds of proponents and participants alike.  Yes this is huge, but I don’t think it’s unique.   Isn’t this a typical part of change, particularly when the change is significant.  When all of the micro-messages that can fly around our worlds add up and a few easy-to-join-up dots are put together wrongly in our illogical subconscious brains, I suppose you get invariably get to: sustainability = ecology = volunteer work; equality = feminism = lesbianism; and more such big myths that need demystification.

If you are patient and your communication objectives are SMART (i.e. ensure that key leaders in the organization are able to accurately define x sustainability terms if asked by x date) then you just have a long (and interesting) road ahead to generating wider awareness that lead to effective actions.  The communication objective is not the same as the business objective.  In working towards that communication objective, it looks like the conceptual keys you hold to doing that are the right ones…

Kevin Keohane, CommScrum London

Like Lindsay, I’m the first one to resist anyone who says “X is the most important …” anything.  Just the same, there are few things that genuinely compete with the sustainability challenge – although I take your point.   (Except when it comes to, say, systems and design thinking applied to employee communication.  That is simply right, and other views are completely ignorant and wrong, as well as being utterly devoid of practical or intellectual merit, and in fact such views are a sure indication of the presence either Hiter, Stalin, David Beckham or Satan.)

Dan seems to simply be stating the case that “sustainability” as a business communication topic needs to continue to be taken out of the realm of philanthropy / environmental / community considerations and be applied in a broader context to what sustainability actually means for a business over the mid- and long-term. So, for example, rather than investment banks supporting clean water in Africa, they might think about microfinance and responsible lending / investment (which, dare I say, might have preventd one or two problems in recent years).  Better still, organisations start eliminating “waste” from their operations not just as a recycling drive, but as a way of improving operational efficiency.  You can be damn sure this would happen if a law were passed requiring businesses to take back whatever they sell at the end of the product’s lifespan. And so on.

So I completely agree with Dan’score point – that business can benefit from a sustainable approach, rather than viewing it as a “nice to have” bolt on that must be traded off for something else (i.e. profit).

And yet, it’s all too easy to wax Evangelical about these things.  The real shift is out of the dominant short-term business mentality, and out of Western consumer culture mindset … but them’s a much longer story…

Mike Klein–Scrum des Commes Bruxelles / Kommskrummen Brussel

Nothing pisses off senior execs more than being told how to run their businesses.  Communicators, even the most senior, are looked to at most for advice, rarely for direction.

Telling a CEO that you have the answer to the question of “how to run a successful business”–or telling her that “the real issue is whether we’ll be in business in 50 years time” would be enough to get all but the most indispensable communicator chucked out of a boardroom for good.

I agree with Dan that the current social/environmental focus of “sustainability” and the thinking and positioning of an organisation relative to long-term future alternatives are two separate things, requiring serious thought–but I disagree violently that longevity must be the goal of any organization.

I’d much rather see organizations fuelled by a commitment to particular causes or outcomes, and then either dissolve upon success, or reconstitute themselves to address new challenges.  Longevity for longevity’s sake reminds me of creepy people who have their heads cryogenically frozen in Florida.

I also think Dan unduly minimizes the importance of organizational engagement around social-environmental-political sustainability issues, as these issues often present real, perhaps even existential threats to organizational viability.  Rather than adopting the rightfully-fatal posture as “conscience of the company’s long-term future”, we ought to focus our sustainability efforts on deep internal engagement and astute political navigation.

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12 thoughts on “Changing the way we think about sustainability

  1. kevinkeohane says:

    I love the cryogenic head analogy, Mike, and it raised a point I hadn’t thought of – which I agree with. Mine is a hard mind to change! And your final point is absolutely brilliant.

    On the other hand, the C-level dudes I work with actually tend to react very favourably to well-considered suggestions about running their business. The cliche view of these guys as unapproachable monsters who don’t listen may well be true in some cases… but they are still human beings. I think sometimes those with less exposure to the C-suite have this impression. Again, the caveat being (1) well-considered suggestions, not boisterous opinions and (2) going in with the knowledge that your advice may be ignored or rejected wholesale.

  2. Dan Gray says:

    @Mike – I’m in no way belittling the importance of the socio-political-environmental stuff; nor am I telling people how to run their business. I’m merely positing (advising!) that if that’s the be-all end-all of a business’ focus, it will become increasingly difficult to generate any meaningful competitive advantage through action on sustainability.

    If your central point is the need to achieve deep employee engagement in sustainability issues, then (in that respect at least) we’re in violent agreement, and that’s precisely what framing sustainability as I suggest can help to do.

    It’s in understanding sustainability as being about culture and fundamental business viability (rather than simply “green”) that you create an infinitely more valuable role for employee communications – as opposed to largely externally focused, PR-driven initiatives with the sole goal of protecting and enhancing corporate reputation. As every man and his dog seeks to stake his ethical and environmental credentials, that kind of approach is destined to become a hygiene factor.

    As demonstrated by companies like Interface Inc. out in the States, the real value to business – and to society at large – comes when corporations set their sights considerably higher and use sustainability as a fundamental design value to interrogate, challenge and transform existing systems and business models – not just after-the-event philanthropy to soften the blow of “business as usual”.

    Check out CEO, Ray Anderson, on TED for a genuinely inspiring example of what can be achieved – and, incidentally, the importance Ray attaches to the galvanising effect that their Mission Zero strategy has had on Interface’s people.

    @Lindsay – I don’t disagree that every topic presents its own unique challenges, but we’re talking about a different order of magnitude here. I do say “perhaps”, by the way, although what bigger challenge is there than ensuring you’re still in business in 20 or 50 years’ time? If a business has gone to the wall, what else is there for us to do?

    Why do I paint that as a realistic scenario? Just look at research conducted by Stanford University, which lists all of the following in its Top 10 of “wicked problems” facing businesses today:

    – Balancing long-term objectives with short-term demands
    – Combining profitability with social responsibility
    – Addressing the challenge of eco-sustainability

    Particularly in light of the failure at Copenhagen, you can bet your bottom dollar that these issues are only going to continue to rise up the pecking order.

    In that sense, all I’m really doing is echoing the theme of my first post, i.e. that incremental tinkering (in this case to make existing systems and business models a little “less bad”) will increasingly become an irrelevance.

    The business case is already shifting emphasis from CSR as a tactical tool to protect and enhance reputation to sustainability as a key strategic driver of innovation – leading to the creation of new and better business models that make equal sense to staff, shareholders and society, and that – ultimately – may render incumbent ones redundant.

  3. Indy says:

    Short thoughts:

    Lindsay is right to note that it sounds more correct to say that “sustainability” is the biggest _business_ challenge of our times. Although I wonder if some of her objections seem to play into the stereotype of the tactic-obsessed communicator.

    On longevity – “x years” is surely sometimes the wrong metric – but I take issue with the way Mike’s criticism is raised: the reality is that current articulations of “business purpose” (vision, mission, goals) generally exist completely in a utopia of “longevity for longevity’s sake.” Very few corporations undertake any consideration of why/when/where they would stop operating (or even change direction/terms of business). I’m reminded of how many venerable companies are staggering under the weight of pension obligations undertaken with the notion that the company would never shrink, it would either be stable or grow.

    We’ve seen “living wills” come into the discussion of bank regulation, I wouldn’t be surprised if they start to come into the reckoning for all corporations.

    On communications – if communications is in part about creating/facilitating the conversation between the different outliers of the business (notably management and the frontline of product/service delivery) then the discussion about the actual intended life/purpose of the corporation (which sustainability decisions then grows out of) does seem like a new kind of communications challenge for a lot of organisations…

  4. commscrum says:

    Basically, what we have here is the classic argument between “term” and “whole life” life insurance, with one providing short term protection relatively cheaply, and the other building up a long-term asset but for considerably higher premiums.

    That much being said, I think our collective understanding of both approaches to “sustainability” (transactional-political vs. systemic-long term) is still well in advance of where the market is.

    Transactional-political sustainability effectiveness may eventually become a hygiene factor in 7 years time, but it’s far likelier to become a full-blown battleground in the more immediate future. Indeed, it will only become a hygiene factor only after some organizations withstand serious (or even fatal) damage for underestimating the importance of engaging their stakeholders–or from aiming over their heads.

    While there’s a lot of good in what Dan and the long-termers are saying, I still think the best opportunity for internal communicators to add value now is around figuring out how to meaningfully empower employees to address their organizations’ current sustainability agendas with the other stakeholders they encounter–than to inject ourselves into conversations about 50-year futures.

    Mike Klein–The Intersection

  5. […] time to go from “Great to Good” Amidst the fallout and discussion arising from my Commscrum post, my friend Indy Neogy dropped me a line and pointed me in the direction of Umair Haque’s […]

  6. Sorry I’m so late weighing in on this one. I radically agree with much of what’s been said. Sustainability is either a fundamental value of a company and/or their leadership or it’s not. You can’t fake it. Actions in this case [as in most communication issues] speak louder than words. And here in Canada I’m sorry to say for the most part actions and words are often off in all direction.

    And, if organizations bolt “sustainability” on in my experience you end up with things like triple bottom line accounting. Perhaps a step in the right direction, that still misses the real value and creates new kinds of silos in organizations. And, unless the behaviours are aligned just more evidence for employees that the execs aren’t trustworthy.

    In general, here, there’s a belief that the short term costs of being sustainable [no matter how you define it] outway the long term benefits. You guys in Europe are way ahead.

    Much of the change here will depend on large institutional investors making a commitment to change their investment strategies to require an evaluation of future environmental, social and governance risks.

    So like you I’m hoping this is a real wicked problem for execs soon and an issue/opportunity for internal comms here someday soon.

    PS: the cryogenic head imagery is very sticky indeed…made me smile
    PPS: Just saw Richard Branson at McGill this week. Please don’t tell me he’s not as good as he sounded…

    • Dan Gray says:

      Funny; contrary to popular perception, the most compelling examples I’ve come across all seem to come from North America!

      In addition to Interface, take Herman Miller for example. It too places massive emphasis on ‘design for sustainability’, drawing much of its inspiration from one of my favourite texts – Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart’s excellent ‘Cradle to Cradle’.


      • Ah, America not North America I’m afraid. The Canadian 10% rule makes some of the difference [10% of the population, 10% of the economy, 10% of the innovation?]. Doesn’t mean you couldn’t find any Canadian examples. It’s just that our wide open outdoors lets us escape reality for longer than in Europe – or the many more highly populated parts of the US – on environmental issues. And when you get to social and governance questions if we’re doing anything we seem to be following leaders who are elsewhere. Will definitely checkout these references. Thanks Dan.

  7. commscrum says:

    Gang–check out a slideshare from an old buddy of mine, Jack Martin Leith–comes at this from a slightly different angle, but interesting stuff.


    Mike Klein

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