Sustainability should be much simpler than what we make it out to be. It’s not very complicated – take actions today that leaves the world in a better or no worse place for future generations. But the devil is always in the details. And this made me think a little of what are the different levels of sustainability. And how the concept of sustainability and the current trends influence business in the future. I’m sure this is way too simple so feel free to chip in and help define the levels of sustainability. These are rough thoughts that was hatched during my daily commute on public transport and therefore very rough…
Why make these distinctions? Because it helps us know how to work with and help each company. They are all very different and needs to be treated differently. Many moons ago I had a client who asked me to help them become “like Timberland”. My response was pretty straight forward – “You know you are an extractive company, right?”
More importantly, it helps us think of the future of sustainability. We know what a sustainable future should or could look like – what role does business play in this future?
1. I don’t do sustainability
There are many companies out there who just plain do not believe in sustainability. They believe in one thing and one thing only – increasing their ROI for the next few days. Even a quarter is a long-term vision for them. They will campaign against anything that asks them to take their impact into consideration – climate change, labor rights, equality in the workplace etc. They will comply to local laws because they have to and not always because they want to. That’s why they lobby and fight against so many of these laws. They will take subsidies without thinking of their own responsibility. They will cut corners where they can – and in most cases stick within the law. They will sell you snake oil and call it green. They’ll do the minimum and think that is the actions of a responsible company. They will use meaningless words and phrases that sound cute but mean nothing like “the business of business is business“. I won’t spend too much time on these companies. Arguing with them is a losing fight. They see what they want to see and nothing we can say or do will make them change their ways. I won’t invest in them and I won’t work with them. There are just too many other companies trying their best and who needs counsel, help and support. Let’s rather focus on those who see the sustainability of their company and the world as linked to their business bottom line. In any case, I don’t believe these companies will survive for long. History shows us that companies that think this way eventually just die a slow death. Eventually society will see them for who they are – in it for themselves and not really part of society.
2. I act responsibly
Of course there are a range of companies who just aren’t sustainable. The nature of their business and/or their current business model means that they can act responsibly but the company itself cannot be seen as sustainable. They must change how they source or manufacture over time to become sustainable. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be good corporate citizens. Many if them are good citizens who act with great responsibility. I see them as the CSR group rather than the sustainability group – a small but important distinction. Let me use an industry as an example. Most companies in the extractive industry just cannot be seen as practicing sustainability. They take stuff from the grounds and can’t replace it. They can’t leave that specific world in the same or better place. It’s a stretch for them to claim that. I worked with a very well respected luxury goods company and they refused to use the word sustainability. When I asked them why their response was “Because we mine diamonds and can’t put it back. And eventually we will run out of diamonds.” When will they run out of diamonds? Who knows! But the principle is right. But they do incredible work – one of my top 5 companies when it comes to CSR. Incredible work. They do everything right when it comes to sourcing their diamonds, adding value in developing countries where they source from, refuse to buy rubies from Burma, lobby against unsustainable mining practices – they tick all the boxes. But the nature of their business means they take full responsibility of their impact and are incredible corporate citizens – just not sustainable. This is in no way knocking them. Many of these companies do incredible work in difficult circumstances and delivers a product we desperately need today (and tomorrow) – we can’t live without them. I am proud to be associated with them and to work with them. So many of them are shining examples of what responsible businesses could and should be doing. Those in the group who practice sustainability can learn from these companies on what true responsibility in communities and supply chains mean and how to measure and reduce your impact in the world.
3. I am sustainable
Sustainability is slowly but surely becoming mainstream. More and more companies are embracing the discipline of sustainability to build a better business for the future. They have practices that highlight what can be done to make business work and help secure our joint future. They source in ways that do not deplete these resources. They take action on their energy use and tackle climate change in action and voice. They treat workers with respect and speak out against injustices. They will help their suppliers to become more sustainable themselves. They will take responsibility for their products and empower consumers to take responsiblity where they have a joint responsibility – such as driving recycling with consumers. These are the companies who are the leaders of today. They believe in values adding value. They know their future business success is tied to the sustainability of the world around them. The way they operate, source and manufacture, ensures they still have the ability to operate this way in future – the resources are replenished to ensure a better or same tomorrow. The world will be a poorer place without them. In so many ways.
4. I help make the world sustainable
This fourth category is the one that bugs me the most. It’s the most challenging and most complex. Maybe I should break it up into more levels of sustainable businesses, but for now I will keep the three distinctions of this group here.
The easy part is identifying those social innovators and entrepreneurs who focus on developing a business solution to a social problem. They are different from group 3 mentioned above because the nature of the products and services of group 3 is not aimed at a social problem but more about the “wants” of people. Most of the purchases of today are not because we need it but because we want it. We think we need a tablet but we don’t really need it, we just want it. A smartphone is a luxury and not a need. How many pairs of shoes do you need versus how many you want? Companies who are in group 3 still sells products in the “want” category but do so by taking responsibility for their actions and impact by making sustainability part of how they source, manufacture and take responsibility for their final product (waste etc). The social innovators focus on creating products and services society needs – new ways to get clean water to the poor, medicine people need to survive, nutritional products aimed specifically at groups in need, renewable energy solutions in challenging environments, energy-efficient cars (it’s more of a need than want if you only have one car!) – and much much more. They link the need of society to new product or service development and build a business around that. In some cases they might be a non-profit but the principle is still providing a tradeable solution to societal needs – micro-financing is a classic example.
Some of the companies in this category falls outside of this social innovation group though. They are still innovators but they actually focus on the want and not on the need. They develop new products and services that still deal with the current consumer behaviour of buying more stuff that is cool. They tap into the pop culture and fashion of the day and gives it a unique spin by giving it a social value over and above the hip new product. Think of TOMS. The product they sell isn’t unique and neither did they bring a product to life that deals with a specific societal need. They tapped into the mainstream consumer market by creating a cool new “I-want-that” product that has a huge societal benefit attached to it. The business model is very unique but the product itself is not. The concept itself is not that unique either. It is a logical evolution of cause marketing coming into maturity. From attaching a cause to a product to the cause becoming central to the product concept development itself.
The 3rd and last group in this category is the one I struggle with the most and my ideas are still only half-baked here so please feel free to rip it apart. But humor me for a moment.
All of these businesses in this group and the other categories still work within the system we know – sell more products and services to consumers. It operates within the current system. The challenges we face as a society today is challenging this system though. The question being asked is whether we can continue to expect these levels of consumption and be a sustainable world? I’m not talking about a narrow definition of sustainable consumption. Sustainable consumption debates have focused on selling more sustainable products and taking responsibility for your product post-consumer- whether it is how they are manufactured or used. The premise remains the same – sell more stuff. Sell stuff to increase ROI by creating new markets or pushing market share.
Is this system itself sustainable though? Can we really expect to build a more sustainable future by maintaining the same credit levels and expecting people to continue to buy more things? Let me give you an example… Are we any closer to sustainability if every single pair of shoes sold in the world now and in the future is made by TOMS? If we buy TOMS at the same rate of growth – does that make the world sustainable? TOMS might have a great business model but the world can’t handle buying at the same level we’ve had over the last 10-30 years – even if it is TOMS…
That is the essence of the challenge for companies – how to change the business model to remain profitable in a world that needs lower consumption levels and somehow keep investors happy. This would be the next level of business and sustainability. But this is a balancing act that is asking a lot…
The honest truth is that I have no clue how we can do this. Like I said, it’s just something that is bugging me at the moment. Somewhere the answer lies and I believe that good businesses, and society in general, will come up with an answer. We don’t have much of a choice as the runaway levels of consumption is not sustainable. And neither is the continuous pressure on the business bottom line via squeezed margins and market share. We’re close to a tipping point.
This goes way beyond the “Shared Value” concept. Shared Value argues we look at where business and society intersects and finding the joint value in that relationship to drive business and societal benefits. But what if the real value is to share less?
I don’t have the answer. But it’s worth exploring the options as doing nothing might not be an option for much longer.