The wrong-headed solutions of corporate sustainability

In their new book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability (Stanford University Press, April 2013), authors John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman invite readers to eavesdrop on a conversation between them as they discuss how to create a sustainable world. Much of the book is based on taped conversations and structured like a dialogue, or Q&A sessions divided up by themes, such as “The Myths of Our Modern Culture” or “Reasons to Be Hopeful.” Each chapter opens with a brief narrative in Ehrenfeld’s voice and edited by Hoffman. Ehrenfeld, Hoffman’s former teacher, instructs readers in his unique and often surprising perspective by way of these essays. They also allow us to peek around the corner, to preview what is coming in the authors’ tête-à-tête.

In the following excerpt, Ehrenfeld describes “The Wrong-Headed Solutions of Corporate Sustainability.”

If you look at the semantics of the phrase “corporate sustainability,” it means a condition in which the corporation prospers for a long time. I don’t think this is what it was meant to refer to, but there it is. It’s important to get this straight because so many businesses (and the business schools that serve them) are increasing their attention to “sustainability” through both words and deeds. Increasing numbers of firms are adopting a program of “corporate sustainability,” complete with a “chief sustainability officer,” annual sustainability reports, green product lines and a well-equipped PR department to “sell” them. It is encouraging to see firms show that they are thinking about sustainability, but they have got it mostly or completely wrong. My concern is not that this new awareness is the wrong thing to do, but it can, at best, produce only incremental Band-Aids. It will not solve the unsustainability problem at its roots; it can, at best, only lessen its impacts.

I sit in front of my computer and scan the news almost every day. I type in "sustainability," "green," "environmentally friendly" and a host of other related terms and get hundreds of hits a day. What I see are companies talking about their sustainability strategy, and their sustainable and environmentally friendly products. Well, none of them are talking about sustainability-as-flourishing in any real sense. The advertising may be well intentioned but it’s misleading for at least three reasons.

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