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Now is the time for major leaps in corporate sustainability

<p>Public pressure is shifting toward taking action on a range of sustainability issues&nbsp;<span>&mdash;</span>&nbsp;can business shift to keep up?</p>

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.

Fertile ground?

At the same time as I find myself questioning the rate at which sustainability mile markers are being passed (sometimes in reverse!), some amazing shifts are occurring in society generally and specifically endemic to sustainable development:

  • The gay rights movement in the U.S. is in a transcendent moment. That the same-sex marriage debate will soon end with strong majorities favoring it and wondering how it was ever in question is, I think, a demographic certainty. This was reflected in the recent brouhaha around the Boy Scouts' decision-making on gay membership  while the Boy Scouts deferred their decision until later this year, it was telling that President Barack Obama did not even seem to feel the need to answer media questions about his views on the subject, addressing a question he recently would have found vexing and risky by saying more or less, "If you have been listening to me, you know I believe all Americans deserve equal rights and equal access to everything. Next question."
  • Momentum is building from the other side of the aisle also, with dozens of prominent Republicans signing an amicus brief in support of gay marriage that will be filed in the Proposition 8 case going before the Supreme Court.
  • Immigration reform is posed for a tectonic shift also, with this article describing how the transition in attitudes that California has been through over the last decade and a half is what the U.S. might anticipate nationally near-term. (Hint: We will worry more about attracting and retaining immigrants than keeping them out.)
  • In spite of debt ceiling and sequestration dysfunction suggesting U.S.-elected representatives may be completely witless, there is exciting movement in terms of climate policy. Again new ground is being broken out West, with California's cap and trade program coming online in November of last year and instantly becoming the second-largest such program worldwide.
  • Meanwhile, in the Northeast, the longer established Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is ratcheting up standards, cutting emissions allowed under the scheme by nearly half.
  • And there is clearly new energy in civil society in terms of demanding more action on climate, as evidenced especially by the number and scale of Keystone Pipeline protests. Without it being certain whether the president will approve or block this particular piece of energy infrastructure, I do think we have entered a whole new realm with regard to the level of public concern about global warming, and that expectations for evidence of how government and industry will help create and deliver a low-carbon economy will do nothing but accelerate.

What these societal and sustainability shifts have in common is that they now sound just normal  outlying curiosities whose future hopes were slim until recently now moving forward inexorably.

Big Idea, meet Moment

While the thread is elusive, there seems a connection (or needs to be one) between the Big Idea, metrics and goals, corporate sustainability leadership overall and larger societal change. We must continue to work as individuals and individual entities to help bring change about via the practical and hands-on steps implied by the vision-performance-engagement framework and like approaches, certainly. But we have to pay attention to the larger context.

Does corporate strategy understand and intersect with the public mood? Is policy moving to support or counter the initiative? Are there indicators of any kind of groundswell foretelling the kind of acceleration on an issue needed to push it fully into consumer and/or public consciousness? And can corporate effort help shape and build sustainability groundswells, while also harnessing their momentum to uplift new, more just and durable business models?

I could be wrong about this. But there's little new downside risk  we'd maintain the status quo and be no worse off than now. And perhaps 2013 offers a window in which societal foment and sustainability couple to deliver new and exceptional results. Can we seed and seize that moment?

Businessman leaping photo by Morgan Lane Photography via Shutterstock.

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