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Values Proposition

Simplifying sustainability: 4 concepts to power our purpose

Applying these principles can lend more authenticity to sustainability decisions and strengthen understanding among key audiences.

Sun shining on tree seedling

Source: Shutterstock/nmedia

As the sustainability agenda expands, it becomes even more complicated to manage issues, communicate progress with stakeholders and maintain influence in a world of limited attention spans. Sustainability professionals have periodically compounded their own dilemma and shortchanged their influence by chasing shiny objects rather than adhering to more focused concepts integral to business and policy success. Four concepts in particular convey authenticity but are underused to communicate effectively about sustainability issues. Employing these principles would simplify understanding and resonate with key audiences.

Climate change is pollution — a central part of our sustainability mission is to reduce pollution to protect the health of people and ecosystems

Over the past 30 years, two parallel universes have addressed pollution and climate change. First, traditional environmental statutes and regulations have cranked down air, waste and water releases primarily from industrial sources. A second, separate sphere of scientific assessments, international agreements and infrastructure investments have incrementally attempted to hasten the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but with limited success. From time to time, policy decisions taken in one universe benefit environmental conditions in the second. For example, since the 1970s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued more restrictive ambient air quality standards for particulate matter (PM). The public health benefits of PM controls overwhelmingly outweigh the cost of implementing them. The co-benefits of reducing PM to prevent future GHG releases derives from the fact that many PM sources (automobiles, chemical plants, electric power generating stations, refineries) also emit carbon dioxide, methane and other gases with longer-term climate consequences.  

Going forward, business investments and public policies aimed at reducing pollution and abating GHG emissions should be jointly leveraged. The existence of two parallel universes — one focused on pollution, the other on climate change — is obsolete and a hindrance to clear thinking. In a world of systemic change and growing environmental risk, where public understanding and support are critical to implementing policy, technology and marketplace innovations, the need to reduce complexity in our understanding and accelerate actions to jointly protect the health of people and ecosystems becomes even more imperative. In summary, greenhouse gases are pollutants. The public understands and supports reducing pollution — and our mission is to reduce pollution.

EHS (environment, health and safety) is the starting point for ESG (environment, society, governance) 

No sustainability leadership in any form is credible without excellent performance across environmental, health and safety metrics. EHS metrics are well-defined, many are backed by statutory and regulatory requirements, and there are robust management systems and independent reporting and certification protocols in place to ascertain the integrity of data and systems. Organizations that are poor EHS performers cannot and should not be trusted in their sustainability claims or commitments.

By contrast, the world of ESG reporting is a jumble of mixed objectives and methodologies and presently susceptible to political agendas hostile to climate change, diversity and environmental justice priorities. Proponents of ESG reporting in the financial and corporate communities have become more cautious about using this terminology, and many seek to avoid it altogether. The collective set of activities that fall under the ESG umbrella lack the simplicity, clarity of purpose, management systems discipline, performance-driving metrics and public accountability measures that characterize the EHS culture.

Collaboration is a management skill

Freshly returned from the summitry of COP28 in Dubai or the manicured ski slopes of Davos, many participants tweeted or blogged of their multiple collaborations when, in fact, they were referencing their networking or speaking opportunities. There’s quite a difference between the two. Collaboration involves a detailed process of leveraging opportunities among two or more organizations for the purpose of pursuing common objectives accompanied by specific metrics, timelines, resource investments (people, money, infrastructure or in-kind contributions) and reviews of results. Both commitment and skill are required to ascertain where interests converge, how to build mutual trust, and integrate a specific collaboration opportunity for longer-term impacts. By contrast, networking, while often a precursor to more formal collaboration, is frequently a more transitory process that may or may not lead to direct collaboration, but it does provide the grist for a seemingly endless number of social media selfies and commentaries.

Executives and managers across all major organizations — academia, business, government or multilateral organizations — are not formally trained to collaborate. Rather, collaboration is derivative of organizational culture or need, and skills and relationships are developed either on the fly and/or through cumulative personal experience. Over time, successful collaborations, and the analysis of factors that yielded their success, have entered the published case study literature. It’s time for more formal application of these insights into university curricula, consultant advisory services, and executive leadership and management training. For collaboration to advance at the scale for which it’s needed, the management skills embedded in its promise must be subject to more rigorous applications rather than emerging from the seat of our pants.

Persuading the public has become Job No. 1

The sustainability community is stuck in a rut. For decades we have believed that better science, more ambitious policies and regulations, and investments in cleaner technologies would provide compelling data and public support to decarbonize the economy and embrace the ethics of a different kind of consumer society. While these factors are undoubtedly essential to success, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides significant insights on how big a chunk of the puzzle we continue to miss. Data from 430 studies were examined to evaluate which factors shaped people’s behavior on climate change issues. Educational background, setting of personal goals and availability of financial incentives were of lesser influence than social comparisons, or how people’s opinions and decisions were shaped by their families, friends and neighbors. These "social cues" of talking to your neighbor about a newly installed solar energy rooftop, or purchasing a heat pump or new hybrid or electric vehicle, proved far more compelling motivation than receiving information brochures from the local utility, reading environmental literature or following the latest government policy initiatives.

The collective set of disciplines that study human behavior, known as the social sciences, aims to focus on these social cues for a variety of consumer decisions. Unfortunately, the social sciences have been dramatically underfunded by government since the Reagan administration. This dearth of understanding represents a major roadblock in implementing climate change policies and investments. In 2022, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recognizing that more and better science alone wasn’t sufficiently influential, called for governments to evaluate behavioral and cultural factors as part of their climate policies. So many policies and investment decisions are already in place, or will be in the near future, to address the growing climate crisis. The missing link is understanding ourselves — how to better structure our social conversations at the individual and aggregate levels so that public understanding and support will intensify for public policies, investments and consumer decisions necessary for success.

The obvious trend among sustainability professionals who apply their expertise across a series of issues is to make decision-making more complex. The obvious consequence of this trend is to further separate a large number of citizens from understanding and being fuller participants in shaping sustainability debates. By contrast, looking for opportunities to simplify sustainability decisions can unleash more authenticity and power for a world we aspire to create.

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