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Two Steps Forward

The sustainability imperative imperative

Suddenly, sustainability is near the top of the business agenda. Better late than never.

Sustainability imperative

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"Better late than never."

That’s my four-word review of the recent crop of reports, whitepapers and other treatises proclaiming the importance — the imperative! — of developing and executing a companywide sustainability strategy. They come from consultancies, service providers, media organizations and others seeking to stake their claim as go-to experts in this arena.

For those of us who have been in the field of corporate sustainability for more than a minute, it’s a welcome development, yet another sign of the mainstreaming of this critical topic. Relative newbies likely don’t appreciate how marginalized these topics had been until recently — how much they were relegated to the realm of doing well by doing good or shunted off to the side as a feel-good exercise (or, to use a more recent, uglier term, "virtue signaling").

When everything becomes an imperative, nothing is.

No more. At long last, this stuff is being taken seriously — very seriously. And while there remain those who view the whole shebang — net-zero carbon emissions, ESG metrics, climate tech, the circular economy and all the rest — as "woke capitalism" (another mean moniker), those critics are finding themselves shunted off to the side, marginalized, a voice in the wilderness.

What goes around comes around.

Ladies and gents, welcome to the Sustainability Imperative era, where environmental (and, sometimes, social) leadership is widely seen as requisite to competitiveness and long-term viability. The notion has become axiomatic, reflexive, even knee-jerk in some circles. That doesn’t undermine its importance in this moment and the influence it bestows upon those in the sustainability profession.

Signaling the imperative nature of sustainability seems to have become, itself, an imperative.

I’ve been perusing some "imperative"-related materials whizzing through my inbox lately. Much of it is fundamental and well-known to sustainability vets but can still be reinforcing and empowering. For those newer to these climes, some of these writings can provide a foundation for increased understanding and a useful toolkit for engaging others, both internally and externally.

To be sure, the notion of a "sustainability imperative" isn’t new. The venerable Harvard Business Review published an article with that title back in 2010. In it, authors David Lubin and Dan Esty predicted that "the sustainability strategy imperative will be systematized and integrated into the day-to-day practices of firms of all sizes in all industries." More than a decade later, their prescience has become reality.

Today’s "imperative" tracts sound a tad more urgent, reflecting the growing global threats posed by the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, water stresses and other things. For example, here’s Marc Van Caeneghem, global sustainability lead at Deloitte:

Today, it’s no longer relevant to just speak of a climate emergency, we have to talk of a business emergency as companies all around the world are already facing increasing damages and exponential pressure for change, whether it’s from consumer activism, increasing regulation, the need for improved operational resiliency or meeting climate targets.

Our entire system needs to change, and no one knows exactly what to do but that is exactly what happens when there is an emergency. It forces you to find solutions … you find a way for capital, for cooperation, for innovation. The pandemic shows us how emergencies mobilize action.

That’s a far cry from "doing well by doing good."

One of Deloitte’s competitors, EY, similarly published an imperative-centric report earlier this year, stating:

Sustainability, in an environmental, social and financial sense, is now a management imperative, shifting corporate focus toward achieving tangible long-term viability alongside organizational ROI. Today’s corporate consensus has shifted away from negatively associated justifications of resource use to acknowledgment of the opportunities presented by sustainable management. We see this as the new sustainability imperative.

More recently, yet another consultancy, Cognizant, published a report that noted "a shift from sustainable business practices as a moral imperative to an economic imperative." KPMG weighed in last year with — you guessed it — The Sustainability Imperative, albeit more of a marketing piece. Accenture joined the fray with its own version (but not its own title).

It’s not just consultancies. Articles, reports, podcasts and webinars on the sustainability imperative seem to be emanating from all over. In April, the Washington, D.C. political insider publication The Hill held a three-day event on The Sustainability Imperative. Ipsos, the polling firm, published a whitepaper with that title. Nasdaq sustainability head Evan Harvey wrote a piece last year using that moniker. Asset manager UBS offered its own "sustainability imperative" report focusing on the investment opportunity, a theme (and title) mirrored by Barclays.

We’re certainly not immune. Over the past few years, GreenBiz has published articles or videos on "imperatives" in diversity, sustainable mobility, economic inclusion, ecological regeneration and probably a few other things.

And as "sustainability" morphs into "ESG" as a term of art, there’s an emerging imperative meme there, too, as indicated recently by Gartner as well as by law firms, risk professionals and others. Brace yourself.

Of course, all this risks becoming a meaningless trope. Consider BCG, the consultancy previously known as Boston Consulting Group. It wrote about the sustainability imperative back in 2016. More recently, however, it has chimed in about the diversity imperative and the biodiversity imperative.

Are we soon to see a circular economy imperative? A climate resilience imperative? A social justice imperative? Too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing.

That is, when everything becomes an imperative, nothing is.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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