Shelton Group has been helping companies articulate their sustainability stories for 15 years. And I can’t tell you how many times, at the beginning of a client relationship, I’ve heard some version of:
"We’ve been doing sustainability since before it was called ‘sustainability!’"
I heard it again last week at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum, but with new words meant to give it more gravitas: "Sustainability is in our DNA!"
Stop because it short-changes the complexity and depth of the climate situation by making it seem as if we could just dial up your efforts a little bit and everything would be OK. And stop because it begs this response: "Really? If you’ve been doing sustainability for decades, why is the planet (and the human race) in the trouble it’s in?" And corporate America doesn’t really have a good answer to that.
Has corporate America done amazing things to move our society forward? Yes. Have many companies I encounter done wonderful things for their people, their communities and for the conservation of resources? Yes. I’m a capitalist and have pushed all my chips to the center of the table on business, betting that the power of competition, innovation and quarterly profits will in fact spur all companies to make huge strides in caring for people and the planet in the name of the almighty dollar.
It isn’t true because sustainability is fundamentally about eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.
But saying you’ve been at sustainability for decades, or that it’s a part of the purpose upon which the company was founded, or that it’s in your DNA just isn’t true for most companies (save the likes of Patagonia and Seventh Generation, both environmental organizations cleverly disguised as consumer goods companies).
It isn’t true because sustainability is fundamentally about eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Most companies have only started measuring and managing GHG emissions in the last five to 10 years — and many haven’t even started.
Recycling, recyclable materials and recycled content does not equal sustainability.
Cleaning up parks, planting trees and giving to charity does not equal sustainability.
Being an ethical corporate citizen does not equal sustainability.
All of those actions can be part of an overarching ESG program, and they’re all wonderful things to do. We can tell compelling stories about them that build brand preference and even drive sales. But alone, they don’t add up to "sustainability."
You can clean up all the parks you want — you can clean up the oceans, too — but you need to identify how many greenhouse gas emissions those actions will actually eliminate. Are they enough to eliminate all the carbon stemming from your company’s existence? If so, awesome, go shout it from the mountaintops. If not — and that’s what the answer will likely be — then get started on the hard work of eliminating the use of fossil fuels to electrify your plants and transport your goods.
Once you’re doing that, then you can credibly talk about your efforts on sustainability. And you can say something like, "We’ve been good stewards of our communities and our air, land and water for decades. And now that we understand our impacts on the climate, we’re working to be good stewards on that front, too."