Getting Real

Why we need context-based strategies

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Forget context-based goals for corporate sustainability. How about context-based strategies?

"Thank you for your candor."

I heard that a lot, often in a delivery more sardonic than grateful. "They’re right about you — you’re very candid," I’ve been told. But looking back, I see that I was not candid enough. And my friends, neither are many of you.

Not that I ever lied (certainly not intentionally), or when faced with a direct question did I obfuscate. As CSO, I spoke often at conferences, in panel discussions, to student groups — to anyone, really, as anyone who has met me will attest.

As you probably are, I was often asked, "Does business really care?" Yes, indeed, I said honestly. And why wouldn’t they? Incorporating sustainability into the business drives innovation, attracts and galvanizes employees, responds to increasingly concerned investors, mitigates risk to the business from global trends, saves money and, frankly, feels good.

The younger people always follow up with "Is it enough?" No, I said, as do you. Because it isn’t enough. We freely admit it to one another. But are we telling it to our executives? The press? Investors? Customers? And what the heck are we doing about it?

Oh, I get it, believe me. We are all navigating business, trying to get people to change how they work by convincing them that these initiatives are not orthogonal to, let alone in conflict with, the metrics by which they’re judged. "Shoot for the moon," I told my team frequently, "and take the hill if you can get it." I still advocate that.

In fact, I’m a long-time proponent of the value of the incremental — to normalize sustainability as a decision-making criterion, to weave sustainability inextricably into operations, to align people around a vision. 

Dispensing with happy horseshit

But can we please stop pretending that it’s enough? Let's dispense with the fairy tales, or the "happy horseshit," as I’ve come to think of it, when we smile for the camera and pat ourselves on the back for minor gains. 

I’ll confess: As CSO, I’ve said things like, "Our goals are ambitious, but we are confident we can achieve them through the innovation and passion of our employees." It was true. It is true. But let’s also acknowledge that it’s not enough for one company to hit its goals if we don’t stop runaway climate change if marginalized communities are still losing their homes, their health, their livelihood. 

The rhetoric of sustainability, corporate citizenship, CSR — pick your umbrella term of choice — has been through phases. First, it was "giving back," as though society and business were separate parties engaged in a transaction, and once we’d paid our bill, we were absolved of further concern.

We evolved to "Sustainability is good for business" — let’s do it for the bottom line.

Now, many companies acknowledge that we want to do things that are both good for the world and good for business; still the center of our universe, but graciously open to taking society into consideration, and even setting context-based goals to take ownership for our allotted piece.

All of us sustainists (or "sustainerati," as I recently heard) are fond of talking about the importance of systems thinking. We are devotees of Peter Senge. But are we acting that way? The systems that need changing are well beyond the scale of individual businesses. It's time we evolve the conversation beyond corporate solipsism.

We need more than context-based goals that ask, "What is my share of the problem?" We need context-based strategies that question, "How do we do enough to matter?"

Let’s take a page from the world of nonprofits and build Theories of Change, starting not with our company and what we can do but with the challenge: what needs to be done; by whom; and how soon. And then, let's figure out what role we can play to make THAT happen.

Is it a tough sell? Yes, which is why we can’t entirely give up using the company-first approach with many audiences. Should we stop all the incremental actions that save money, make people feel good and burnish the brand? Of course not. But let’s at least start with a theory about how we’re to get to the outcomes we need in this world.

Some companies are moving in the right direction, stepping up with big, ambitious missions that far exceed their share of the pie, and hoping to reshape their industries through their leadership. Alliances such as the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance and industry groups such as the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition create leverage for change through collaboration. 

Last year, I was confronted with a challenge: can we bring an entire industry (or more) together over just one sustainable development goal with a purpose of making a measurable, palpable, visible, global impact?

Well, can we? I don’t know, but I’ve decided to try. Expect my call.

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