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Focus on Substance, Not Slogans, to Strive for Sustainability

Polling and advertising agencies have been warning us about confusion around the practice of going green. The New York Times has coined the term, "green noise" to describe this confusion. The Wall Street Journal posits that the consumer is becoming more skeptical of green products due to both greenwashing and green noise. It is clear that consumers are inundated with too many issues to be able to understand all of them. Many consumers may enjoy green products if they can identify a clear benefit from those products. Allowing business to cash in on their green sentiment is not what they have in mind!

Perhaps there is there a parallel phenomenon in the sustainability (corporate social responsibility) space? What about the overuse of the slogans: "Triple Bottom Line" and "People, Planet, Profits." Like the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability (see my previous blog on Defining Sustainability), these slogans lack the operational specificity needed to make sustainability function at the facility level.

In the distance learning sustainability course that I teach at Harvard University, I use a paper entitled, "Getting to the Bottom of the 'Triple Bottom Line,' " published by Wayne Norman and Chris MacDonald. It makes the people that use the TBL phrase angry. The authors argue that the triple bottom line is a rhetorical device with little substance. Further, the TBL may distract managers and investors from more effective approaches to social and environmental performance. Their critique is not aimed at sustainability efforts in general, but rather at this one misguided slogan. I like to make the same argument on the use of the very popular 3P slogan. Almost every sustainability manager using this slogan says, "Making a profit is a given!"
Shut out the noise ...By SXC user toxygen. See image at
Of course, but does a profit matter if the company is located in an economically devastated location and no one wants to work there? Philanthropy must be directed at improving the financial well-being of the communities where the company does business. This might not be a part of what some call "environmental sustainability," but it is a key component of a sustainability program that pays attention to its three responsibilities. Instead of slogans, let's consider the three responsibilities and what's involved in integrating them effectively into a sustainability program.

Organizations that practice sustainability must address their environmental responsibility. A key component of this responsibility is what many call, eco-efficiency. There needs to be a drive to harness resource efficiencies by paying attention to all the resources (water, energy and materials) used in the activities, products and services. Resources are used and lost in processes. Furthermore, there is embedded water and energy in the feed stocks used in the process. There might even be a net gain in the water and energy intensity in the products. Many businesses are now grappling with the upstream use of resources by using life cycle management methods. They are also interested in the resources that are lost at the end of the product life. It's a big order, but no one said that sustainability would be easy!

Resources are best controlled using an integrated management system that is part of the way the business is operated. Instead of looking at environmental impacts, most business managers look at the operational, regulatory and reputational risks that the use and loss of resources pose to the organization. Risk management is well grounded in the way most operations are operated.
... and focus on substance not slogans, says Robert Pojasek.CC license by Flickr user corono.

Next there are social responsibilities for organizations practicing sustainability. At the facility level, social responsibility takes the form of shared values, trust, communications and shared cultural norms that help people to work cohesively and enable the local business to operate effectively. Social structure helps create a climate of consent and understanding or a social license to operate. Organizations also rely on wider socio-political structures to create a stable society (even at the local level) in which to operate - - e.g., government and public services, effective legal systems and security arrangements, trade unions, schools and other effective local organizations.

Finally there are the economic responsibilities. Some have referred to the five capitals that are involved in the economic responsibilities: human, natural, social, manufactured and financial. Most businesses focus on the financial capital area. It is the traditional measure of business performance and is used to report to the shareholders as well as a wide range of different stakeholders. In order to promote sustainability, a business needs a clear understanding of how financial value is created. All five forms of capital are interdependent on each other. One must look well beyond profits and consider the value of the other four capitals.

The TBL and 3P slogans, while incredibly popular, are limiting and diverting us from working on the basics of sustainability. They are creating a lot of sustainability noise and this is not good for companies wanting to continually improve in this area.

Robert B. Pojasek, Ph.D., is the practice leader for Business Sustainability at First Environment Inc. and an internationally recognized authority on the topic of business sustainability and process improvement.

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