Why using the S-word still works

GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower recently reported on a study suggesting that sustainability professionals should avoid talking about "sustainability" within their organizations to be effective. EMC's Kathrin Winkler offers another perspective.

Last year, I heard James Woolsey said something that has been a useful guide to my behavior in my role as CSO. He said (paraphrasing) that what needs to be done is so important that we can't demand the luxury of people having the motivation we want them to have; we must be satisfied with their taking the action that we want them to take.

It comes up often in my role. People say "we didn't do that to reduce GHG emissions; we did it to save money". My response? "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we lived in a world where saving money always reduced GHG emissions?" After all,  isn't that our ideal - to have an economy in which what's right for the business is always good for the well-being of the planet and society?

There are so many reasons why sustainability is good for business. It helps attract, retain, and motivate the best talent. Our customers use it to differentiate products and suppliers in an increasingly commoditized world. Reducing waste improves the bottom line. Sustainable performance improves market value (or at least some studies say so).  And it's good (I am convinced) for long-term shareholder value. As the Dow Jones Sustainability Index says, a sustainable business "creates long-term shareholder value by mitigating risks and embracing opportunities from economic, environmental, and social developments."

And yet…

In my last post, I talked about what is happening in my calendar. Here's some of what's happening inside my head.

My job is to influence change. I am confident that I need to tap into whatever motives yield the behaviors that make the change we seek.

And yet…

Next page: Some values can't be reduced to market terms

Have you watched the Harvard Justice series with Michael Sandel? (You should. It's available on iTunes UYouTube, and Harvard.edu, and worth every minute of the nearly 12 hours.) My husband and I have been watching it, and I also have just read Sandel's latest book - What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Sandel asks the question of whether there are values that cannot, or should not, be reduced to market terms. Values, in fact, that are "crowded out" or suppressed by attaching a dollar figure to them. This is essentially a question of philosophy. Immanuel Kant v. John Stuart Mill, if you will. And it puts words to what has been niggling at me.

Yes, sustainability is good for the bottom line. Yes, I believe in my heart of hearts that creation of financial value and sustainability need not be, and indeed are not, mutually exclusive.

And yet…

There are higher reasons for caring about the future of the planet and the others who live here now and will do so in the future. But for fear of being labeled anti-business, idealistic, "do-gooders", or (heaven forbid) "environmentalists", the sustainability community generally avoids talking about them.

I'm lucky. My CEO talks about all the good business reasons for EMC's commitment to sustainability, but then he says "and besides that; it's the right thing to do."

Let's keep pointing out the business benefits. But please - let's not forget that it is the right — the moral - thing to do.