Sustainability 101: The Human Problem

Sustainability 101: The Human Problem

These are indeed difficult and extraordinary times for businesses, and the natural reaction is to cut back on areas such as sustainability, which are not quite yet an established function in most companies, don't necessarily bring in direct revenue, and are not core competencies for many.

Cutting back on sustainability now, however, would be a mistake because it will only get more expensive to implement programs in the future, when more of your competitors are doing it as well. One of the most critical elements of understanding sustainability and making it a driver of value is getting out of the starting blocks and up the learning curve.

Here are seven activities you can do, with minimal investment in a down economy, to start getting up that learning curve.

The key is to start. Like any journey, the hardest part is getting off the couch or out the door.  Begin now.

Build the Yugo

There is an inclination to reveal a Cadillac when you unveil your sustainability strategy. You don't. Build the Yugo first.

This was a lesson we learned in Silicon Valley during the tech boom. That bubble created several distortions, one of which was the belief that you needed to have your "beta" version perfect before you made the first release. Most of those companies burned through their cash before they had a chance to make a difference.

The mantra we used at the start-up where I worked was "Build the Yugo, Build the Yugo" (this was, unfortunately, after we had been mired in months of trying to get a Cadillac on the showroom floor). The same holds true with sustainability.

Start simple. Measure ... carbon, for starters. What you measure, you can monitor. What you monitor, you can change.

Define Sustainability

It is a wooly word. Ask 50 companies, NGOs, or sustainability consulting firms, and you will get 40 different definitions, while the other 10 will ask you whether you mean business sustainability, environmental sustainability or if you're trying to invite them to a conference they don't want to attend.

Twenty-five years ago, The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." While that is more of a macro-economic definition than micro-economic, that is a good a place as any to start. Sustainability is using resources at a rate that can be renewed or using the earth as a sink at a rate that does not exceed its absorption capacity.

Academics and writers have been focused on sustainability long before we started to notice demonstrable change in climate or "green" entered the hyperbolic realm of Madison Avenue's whiteboards. If you want to get specific, look to Herman Daly, Eric Neumeyer, Kenneth Bolding, Aldo Leopold, among many others.

But for starters, pick a definition that makes sense to you, your employees, and your stakeholders, and go with it.

Know Your Company

Every company will be at a different point on the sustainability awareness curve.

Sustainability awareness curve

Click for larger image

If you are a company that is or has been a non-believer in climate change, you are making that decision based on emotion -- don't bother with a sustainability initiative. You can't argue with emotion using reason. Exxon is a good example of this. At the top end of the curve, you have complete believers -- such as Patagonia or Seventh Generation, who are also making decisions on emotion. Here you obviously want to appeal to the values of your employees and the culture of your company to ensure the success of initiatives.

In between is a broad spectrum of companies that are all making decisions on sustainability based on rational decision-making -- what makes for good business? Here you want to know what your awareness is, who needs to be convinced, and make a business case for change.

We often see clients whose employees are more aware than management about sustainability. You can have internal champions who can help build the case for initiatives, but remember there needs to be a strong business case. Trying to argue with reason using emotion fails. Emotion is what drives you to advocate for change, while reason is often what makes it happen.
Assume Nothing

Again, drawing on the lessons of the tech boom, you should assume nothing about your customers or stakeholders. There is often the perception that the entire world is standing at your doorstep: an array of environmentalists, shareholder activists, Byzantine monks, and concerned citizens all challenging you to take action. This is not always the case, and you run the risk of misreading what you should do and what your customers are prepared for.

While working for the aforementioned tech company in Silicon Valley, we made several mistakes, but one of the largest was that we believed that most of the U.S. uses broadband and had the bandwidth to use our service. In 2000, amazingly only 5 percent of the population had broadband. Many companies at that time were building over-engineered websites that consumers could neither understand nor upload. Even today only 55 percent of U.S. households have broadband.

Fast forward to the sustainability revolution. Tesco is spending 5 million pounds to include the carbon footprint of each of its products on the label. Now, Tesco is doing a lot of great things related to sustainability. But many of their customers don't know the impact of carbon from their exhaust pipes, let alone from their arugula, and many others are just trying to get their heads around the saturated fat content of rigatoni.

Don't assume your stakeholders are all as savvy as those reading Treehugger.com on an hourly basis. Start with appropriate, and affordable, solutions, and continuously educate yourselves and your stakeholders as you move up the awareness curve.

Which brings us to the next point ...

Make It Personal

This is a human behavioral challenge, not an environmental problem or a technological puzzle. The environment did not put us in this situation; humans did. And we have all the technology and resources we need to solve it (at least what is left after we bail out every single industry leader who can manage to get a jet into Dulles or Washington National while the getting is good). We just need to change human behavior.

If you believe the private sector will be a leading change agent in the realm of sustainability, then that change is more likely to come from HR than from R&D. Making your company more sustainability is about getting people to stop doing some things they currently do, and start doing things they are not doing. There is a person behind every building code, inefficient distribution system, polluting fleet, skyscraper alight at night, thalate laced product, off-gassing paint, or excessive packaging.

Your employees are the change we want to see in the world, and you should be the catalyst. If we started reading psychology books and stopped reading polemics on sustainability (this article included) we might actually start getting somewhere.

"Dogs bark at people they do not know." -- Heraclites

If you want to dissolve the ire of the masses, which, as has already been noted, may not be masses after all, then start telling people what you are doing.

You don't have to wait for your Annual Report or even your Corporate Sustainability Report. Start with a website that simply states, "We are taking steps to address sustainability -- here is where we have made progress, here is where we just started, and here, well, here we haven't a clue."

Stakeholders don't expect you to become a squeaky clean enterprise overnight, but they expect you to tell them what you are doing. In this financial and environmental climate, the absence of information breeds fear and panic, and the company with no information becomes, in the imagination of the consumer-citizen, the next Cuyahoga, Valdez, "A Civil Action" ... Tell people what you are doing with regards to sustainability, tell them often, and hire someone to manage it.

Focus on the Dollar Spent at the Margin

Solving sustainability for your company is not an either-or exercise. There is no one best way and there are no binary decision points that lead to the garden of profitability and blue ribbon corporate citizenship. There is no end-of-year awards party -- or at least there should not be for the foreseeable future.

This is a classic optimization exercise -- human and capital resources are finite, but the challenge is not. In this period of unheralded economic uncertainty, think about the value of your sustainability dollar spent at the margin, and think of it along two axes -- the impact that dollar has on the environment, and the influence you have on the recipient to change behavior.

This is something I will continue in the next column -- thinking about where you have influence, where you don't, and learning when to play and when to punt, and most importantly, how to punt in a way that does no harm. 

These are extraordinary times. We have the opportunity to change the way we live for the better, and do it in a manner that increases prosperity and the future prospects of those that are going to follow us, for better or worse. We have a choice; they don't.  There is every indication that we have to act as urgently as is humanly possible, but don't jump blindly on the bandwagon. The same actions that got us into this situation will not get us out. The emotions that gave the canary its wings are different than the logic that will get us out of the coal mine in time.

Start thinking about your people first. This is a human problem, not an environmental problem. And whatever you do, start now.

Stephen Linaweaver is an associate principal with the consultancy GreenOrder, an LRN company. The strategy and management consulting firm has helped leading companies turn sustainability into business value since 2000.