Now is the time for major leaps in corporate sustainability

In a column posted in the fall of 2012 entitled, "What's the Big Idea," Chris Guenther and I explored the degree to which vision (a Big Idea) enables sustainability performance and leadership and vice versa. We concluded that it does to a very substantial degree, and that the current era is one suffering for lack of the kind of rhetoric that, when backed by appropriate strategy and operational excellence, paints a picture of the change required and provides inspiration that it can be realized.

In the same article we shared the vision-performance-engagement framework SustainAbility uses to assess corporate leadership, by benchmarking 11 attributes, of which the Big Idea is but one.

Metrics versus meme

Also in that benchmark are metrics and goals. These are essential, and I don't mean to underplay them, but a spate of recent conversations and some recent media stories have me wondering how focused we should be on the mechanics of target setting and measurement versus understanding the timing of shifts or potential shifts in any movement or change effort  and how to predict, address and capitalize on them.

Fallow patch?

A wave of events in late 2012 and early 2013 suggests many of the major efforts the corporate sustainability field heralds as solutions are not delivering adequate results. For example:

  • Horrendous factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan underscore that labor standards still are not nearly as enshrined as necessary  or as auditing systems like SA8000 have promised.
  • Food retailers across Europe are scrambling to find out if what they are selling customers is beef or horse meat, with Ikea meatballs being only the latest product pulled as I write.
  • In North America, the mirror reflection of the bovine-equine confusion in Europe raises similar questions about food system oversight, with news on a report from Oceana stating that wholly one-third of fish samples tested in 21 states were not the fish that labels or menus told consumers they were buying.
  • And maybe it doesn't matter when we can't even be sure which fish we are eating, but the Marine Stewardship Council has been the subject of an NPR investigative journalism series Under the Label, which seriously questions whether multiple major fisheries certified as sustainable by MSC  from British Columbia salmon whose numbers are uncomfortably low, to Nova Scotia swordfish where the blue shark bycatch dwarfs the number of swordfish caught — are anything of the sort; similar questions surround some other prominent certification and labeling systems.

Labor rights and food provenance are not the whole of corporate sustainability, but they are relatively mature areas, and it is disheartening to see their foundations flawed to this degree, notwithstanding a couple decades of substantial effort to improve. And if there was time and room to cover other topics, examination shows challenges across the sustainable development spectrum  for example, in the policy space as evidenced by the near complete lack of progress made by national governments at Rio+20.