The sustainable business circuit is becoming a jargon-filled parody
<p>This community is possibly rivalled only by the Vatican in terms of its ability to speak entirely to itself.</p>
As an avid Twitter user (@bmay), I follow trends in sustainability with interest, and tune in to the daily green business chatter that pervades my timeline. Much of it is hugely valuable as a source of news. But increasingly, I find myself tuning back out of much of the discussion due to the sheer volume of meaningless jargon that is proliferating the social media sphere. Insofar as I can make it out, the sustainability business community is now striving for something that could be amalgamated as this:
Net Positive Futuristic Collaboratively Consumptive Crowd-Sourced Natural Capitalist Disruptively Innovative Systems Game-Changing Business Radicalism
I do hope I haven’t misunderstood — it’s crystal clear to me.
Except of course that it isn’t, and I’ve worked in this field for over 15 years, and plan to continue doing so until my last breath. More important, none of this is resonating outside the cozy sustainable business community, which is possibly rivalled only by the Vatican in terms of its inward-looking ability to speak entirely to itself. Occasionally, a new convert is picked off from a shoddy or unheard of company, and everyone congratulates themselves on how well the "movement" is doing. It’s doing appallingly badly, in my view. Particularly considering its size and collective weight.
All those NGOs, think tanks, ranking systems, awards, conferences, publications, retreats, multi-stakeholder platforms (there’s a phrase for you) and social media attention. With what result? A handful of businesses on a journey to somewhere with almost no one outside the CSR world aware of any of it. I’d like to see a metric that regards this as a success story.
There is also a growing yawn factor in the same companies being trumpeted on the same conference circuit all the time. We all know who they are, and many of them are indeed very impressive. But do we really need to hear from that retailer or fast-moving consumer goods company again? Granted, these leaders have a role in persuading others to follow them. But the events at which they do so are set up in the wrong way, targeting the wrong people. Three hundred junior CSR managers eagerly lapping up the words of one or two actually interesting and progressive CEOs or sustainability directors, despite all their good intentions, aren’t going to save the world.
It’s time to simplify the sustainability movement, bin the jargon and focus on outcomes. Whenever my eyes are glazing over at the drivel spouted by some academics, practioners and NGOs on Twitter, there are occasional flashes of light. Simple, powerful concepts. We don’t want Arctic Oil, thanks. We don’t want deforestation. We won’t tolerate corporate thugs putting campaigners in prison. We want sustainable fish to sustain the billions who depend on it for protein. We want healthy soils so we don’t run out of food. We want abundant and varied wildlife enriching our natural resources.
And yes, we want brave business leaders to develop strong points of view, champion these issues and do the right thing.
What we don’t need is any more "framing" (another irritating word, up there with "narrative"). Systems redesign; CSR 4.0; planetary engine optimization.
Do you like the last one? I made that up as a joke, but I have great faith I could get some traction for it quite easily if I could be bothered. But it would be a huge waste of my time, and everyone else’s.
From a movement to a racket?
Out there (by which I mean away form the sustainability business circuit) no one’s really listening. Consumers want things done simply for them, making the best environmental choice easy to identify. "Consumer behavior change," that loathesome half-baked concept, won't persuade the pension funds invested in Shell to get out. It won’t stop companies destroying Africa for new palm oil development or alter the flow of Chinese finance that is altering the world’s resource ownership. It also won’t stem the race for middle-class status that is well underway in emerging giant powerhouses such as Indonesia. It won’t stop temperature rises, and it won’t even elect governments that are vaguely interested in the future, except by accident, occasionally. We should bin it and banish it from our "narrative" (oops).
We’d do better to focus on where the big impacts lie — in the huge business-to-business transactions, the trading and commodities world, the financial institutions that must bear responsibility not just for economic collapse but ecological ruin, and the giant conglomerates that are slow to change, but vastly important when they do. I don’t hear much of this on Twitter or at conferences. What I hear is new terminology, new phrases for things that are blindingly obvious. I hear about how brands have great power and can make all the difference. They certainly have power: quite often a consumer boycott campaign leads to sales of whatever is being boycotted going up. Where does that leave your behavior change, eh?
I hear very few new ideas. Everyone is too busy trying to be clever, as opposed to getting on with the job and changing things. I don’t hear any insights about WHY forest governance is difficult in some countries or how to create marine reserves that benefit fishermen. I learn about what forums and frameworks might be deployed. They nearly always fail. Those kinds of critical issues are of course being tackled, but seldom by the "practioners" who bang on about them.
The real progress is happening far away from summits on behavior change, where the air is hot enough to give runaway climate change a run for its money. The real progress is being made by organizations and companies who would regard a CSR conference as a poor use of resources. And all this, I believe, is why specialist journals like this aside, there is such woeful mainstream media coverage of the responsible business agenda. It’s boring, it’s repetitive and a lot of it is downright nonsense.
Eric Hoffer once said, "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket." The #sustbiz movement has reached the first two milestones. It should avoid the third if it wishes to remain relevant. Besides, there’s a very good word for all this: environmentalism.
It’s barely ever used. Perhaps it got crowdsourced out.