Why sustainability no-brainers are a head-scratcher

Out of Context

Why sustainability no-brainers are a head-scratcher

Here's the story: She's a recent MBA graduate working as a corporate sustainability consultant. He's a roaming eco-warrior dodging bullets from rhino poachers in Africa and pursuing illegal loggers in the Amazon. Whose job is more treacherous?

To find out, sneak a peek at her front-line communiqués, which have mysteriously fallen into the hands of Context America President Peter T. Knight, who has decided to share them with us. Can our earnest heroine survive in the corporate jungle with her career -- and ideals -- intact? Follow her adventures below — and read her previous missives here.]

Hey Jeff!

So, you’re off to Brazil with Sandra, eh? I know she’s hot on illegal logging, but Jeff please be careful. She’s a bit uppy-downy and has no fear. Remember what happened in the Congo? That sure was messy.

The Boss and I are in the Midwest this week with a food retailer, eating mammoth steaks with the Client and talking about this thing called The Sustainability Business Case. I’m having trouble with the whole concept and the Boss is getting a little irritated. I’ve got to learn to nod more. You know, Jeff, I’ve been told that’s the sign of a good consultant: a lot of nodding when you’re with the Client. Like one of those nodding dogs my dad used to have at the back of the car. Nod. Nod. Nod.

When the Boss was in mid-flow about how everything’s got to be justified by The Business Case, I guess I shouldn’t have butted in with my skeptical comment about its flaws. But hey, he did say that I should engage with clients. That little intervention got me another one of the Boss’s under-the-table kicks.

The Business Case says you’ve got to prove to the finance guys and his Excel cronies that any sustainability actions you take must either save money or make money. Or, the action avoids some huge risk that everyone agrees is mega. Of course, assessing risk is like debating whether Brad Pitt is aging as well as George Clooney. Difficult, eh?

Look, I know what The Business Case means — I have an MBA, after all — but The Sustainability Business Case has a fundamental flaw that no one seems to want to discuss. It’s a bit like trying to play FarmVille on your iPhone. Have you kept up with all the chatter about Facebook and how it’s been slow to move to mobile telephones and tablets? FarmVille, the let’s-play-business game, works fine on your laptop, but it’s all messy on the mobile.

In a funny sort of way, FarmVille on iPhone is like what’s happening to The Business Case — it gets messy because it excludes a company’s cost to the environment. No one, least of all the Boss, wants to talk about this. Only that Dutch guy who runs Unilever seems brave enough.

Most people just want to talk about the easy part of The Business Case — the Low-Hanging Fruit. Okay, I know you think I’m really literal, but we were sitting in a food retailer’s office and they do sell fruit, right? There was absolutely no justification for the Boss lashing out under the table when I asked what sort of fruit they were going to pluck. I mean, I get the metaphor, sort of, but some fruits have, like, a gazillion air miles and all that embedded carbon and they should be plucked first, right?

It turns out that the metaphor — Low-Hanging — points to the easy, cheap things you can do quickly. They’re what the Boss and the Client keep calling No-Brainers. It’s like installing energy-saving lighting and switching things off when you’re not using them. We had a mining client in Africa who had a five-mile illuminated conveyor belt that ran all the time, whether or not it had ore on it. Switching that thing off when it’s not carting ore is a No-Brainer. Get it?

What I want to know is, why was it on in the first place? Did the person who designed it and the Excel guy who approved it have a brain? I am learning that these are not the sorts of questions you pose to the Client, especially in the presence of the Boss. I’ve got to learn to nod.

The Business Case falls apart when you have Plucked the Low-Hanging Fruit. The Excel guys have got these formulae for payback periods and don’t want to spend anything on improvements unless the savings they create can be paid back fast. No quick payback means no action.

I guess it’s an age thing, but it’s really difficult to convince the clients that everyone — even the Masters of the Universe in hedge funds — are totally dependent on a healthy environment for their existence. You know, ecosystem services and all that. To me and you, Jeff, that’s a No Brainer, but the clients don’t get it.

So, when the Boss went to the restroom, I tried explaining ecosystem services to the Client.

“Both your kids have asthma, right?” I asked. “Could that be linked to all the diesel fumes that come from trucks, including yours? It’s screwing with an ecosystem service, nature’s ability to cleanse the air.”

Maybe I overdid the emotional bit — it’s probably not fair to bring up the kids — because the Boss came back and gave me the evil eye. I decided I’d better start nodding again. In any case, the Client simply didn’t understand.

Seems like one thing the Client does understand is bad publicity. I mean, you can argue for days about the return on investment and the long-term benefit to the environment, society and business — but very little happens. But when Greenpeace makes a video of an orphaned baby orangutan, suddenly things start happening. That’s when the spreadsheet is jettisoned and the CEO screams to anyone who can hear to “Make it go away.” That’s not a phrase you’ll find in The Business Case. Despite its flaws, I realize the Business Case is the only way to make progress, so I’m going to brush up on my Excel. It seems I’m going to have to find creative financial ways to get the Client to take some action. Saving the world one cubicle at a time is not easy. But, Jeff, to me it’s a No Brainer.

Good luck in the Amazon. Make sure Sandra takes her meds.


Head-scratching image by Zametalov via Shutterstock