How To Make The Business Case for Sustainability?

There is increasing frustration in the sustainability practitioners community over moving Sustainability out of the CSR stage and into the forefront of the strategic planning DNA of organizations and governments.

This is captured beautifully by this article in MIT Sloan Management Review, (from 2005) and in a recent forum on LinkedIn.com.

The question, courtesy of the well respected and talented Yangbo Du, is:

"...Much of the discussion about the business case for sustainability relates to how to make an unsustainable system less unsustainable rather than spurring a paradigm shift. In what ways should such a paradigm shift occur, and what and how much can the private sector contribute towards breaking the cycle of systemic failure...?"

Our perspective on one critical solution, specific to private business, is that cost and pricing mechanisms need to be completely reworked. Senior management, BODs, and stakeholders need to be retrained first at re-evaluting and repricing risk and second at evaluating returns based on multi-horizon gains versus current short term ones.

This is exceedingly difficult, but can happen. The vastly underutilized tools that can provide the accurate metrics (which are essential to accurate cost/price determination) are all in the ICT space. Most haven't been created yet. Our team is developing three or four that hopefully will reach BETA in under 12 months, so we know how challenging this work can be.

Constructing a pragmatic, analytical action plan is far more effective than waiting for transformational management practice. Evolution happens through catalyzing events and interactions. Getting in the trenches, ripping apart existing management methodologies of evaluating performance, teaching optimization not maximization and cyclical instead of linear processes are good places to start.

Its hard work, but it needs to be done.

Should Sustainability Leverage Shame & Guilt?

This was a recent question posed through the Sustainable Brands Forum on Linkedin.com.

SP's perspective:

The Shame/Guilt and negative moral leverage tactics have already captured some low hanging fruit in terms of media traction for sustainability issues and citizens amenable to the message. People are terrible at evaluating long term risk therefore they consistently misallocate resources and mis-price for immediate gains versus all others. With some its a moral distinction with others its simply a pragmatic choice of expediency.

1) Most citizen's respond to plug and play solutions (even to exceptionally complex problems) and sustainability advocates have done a mediocre job of developing private/public platforms that are nuanced yet simple to present, elegant and actionable. Shame/Guilt et al only drive polarization - if push/pull synergy is needed to move markets to 3X bottom line adaptation, you'll never get pull based on 1 pole participating exclusively (especially now that we live in a truly multi-polar world.)

2) Businesses respond to demand drivers (please see #1) compliance (they successfully block via lobbying of legislatures) and business practices that improve performance. The keystone is to transform corp, board level and senior management of all flavors from a maximization to an optimization philosophy. Shifting the focus to response-ability, sustainability etc naturally flow thereafter because THE best business practices are sustainable ones. And the point of emphasis, therefore must be the cold, dispassionate, analytical and pragmatic presentation of the true costs (old methodologies versus new ones) and implementing repricing mechanisms accordingly. The bait should be multi-horizon competitive advantage, the hook should be stability of returns and cost mitigation as these relate to future compliance initiatives driven by emerging economic threats.

Governance is sclerotic and inefficient in compelling these behaviors, and NGOs/non-profits generally create more transactional impacts instead of strategic ones.
So my answer is no: dispense with the fear and sloppy altruism and instead focus all energy on global strategic initiatives, platforms, management re-education, systems creation, architecture and metrics.


Can There Be A Single Charismatic Sustainability Leader?

This article from John Elkington and the Guardian raises a fantastic question about the future of leadership in the Sustainability Movement.

After reading Paul Hawken's take on this subject from his book Blessed Unrest, I'm excited and also concerned about his conclusions. Hawken, who has tremendous admiration from this author, makes the case that the Social Justice and environmental movements are huge, yet go largely unremarked in mainstream press because of their decentralization. And, yes, in our opinion that is a good thing. For now.
Hawken compares these movements to the anti-body and immune system responses of the human body: ubiquitous, essential and effective. He also acknowledges that "this immune system" had depressed response times and other impacts that were initially slow moving due to flaw in human psychology and disconnects in awareness that are since being cured by information and communication technologies.
He celebrates these facts and observes that the rate of escalation should hopefully lead to a substantial enough critical mass of citizen based, grass roots action, for there to be geometric or exponential impacts on climate, food and social justice matters. I agree to a certain extent.

I disagree that we have time for the organic nature of these activities to escalate to providing exponential returns, largely because the negative factors on all these issues are already spiraling in complexity at exponential rates. It does only minimal good to rely on the "immune system" to cure and heal a "patient that has multiple gunshot wounds."  And let's be very clear that our planet and its inhabitants are victims of "multiple self inflicted gunshot wounds."

Which leads me back to John Elkington and his Guardian Piece. It has sparked great conversation in the world of sustainability practitioners. 

From a philosophical standpoint, there is certainly a solid basis to suggest that there should be/can be a single mental, emotional, spiritual and strategic leader/tour de force on behalf of 3X bottom line economics and sustainability in socio-economics, geo-politics, global stewardship, jurisprudence etc. Think Hawken-esque.
That isn't the hard part. All great social movements of the last 400 hundred years have had such leaders. Although we have entered the age of crowd sourcing and collaborative decision making, people still are conditioned to need someone/something through which they can crystalize their focus, both positively and negatively.
This is one of the many reasons why we have representative democracy versus direct democracy.
Nominating a candidate for this purpose now is counterproductive, however, largely because of the lack of architecture, limits to capital access, mis-organization, hyper-fragmentation, poor message clarity, insufficient message deployment, poor message efficacy, lack of macro strategic planning, etc as these apply to a global, regional, sovereign, regional domestic and local level initiatives on sustainability and other related topics.

High level leadership is irrelevant if there is no organized support structure capable of interfacing with that leadership.
We have leaders on climate issues, on social justice advocacy, on species depletion, etc... but they are silo'ed and present significant but small pieces of a much larger global architectural and functional overhaul.
Electing one of these folks, from one of these constituent bases, even hypothetically, will do a greater disservice to the whole. Someone, other than our current leaders, with greater potential aptitude and amplitude is required, and yes, necessary.

For example, Former VP Gore is a wonderful person, a true climate champion and a personage worthy of respect and the station he has attained. But in my view, Bill Gates did more to clearly and compellingly define the climate discussion for a wider audience, through his 28 min TED talk "Innovating to Zero", than Mr. Gore has through several books, appearances, speeches, etc.
Why? Because Gates made it a pragmatic, simple, pro-business based, non-partisan, calculated, elegant equation - understandable to everyone and anyone regardless of views, access, nationality, economic station or voice. This is true even when you disregard his taking the TED Talk and using it as an obvious pitch for his atomic energy initiatives with Intellectual Ventures.
Our next leader MUST have this ability to drive both core simplicity and direct action in all facets independently and interdependently as her/his central attribute. In an age of hyper-specialization, we need a multi-faceted leader.

Just as life is an over-reigning constant changing in degree of variety and multiplicity based on a series of factors, so too is centralized leadership a mutable and essential constant to the success of movements and organizations. This is true specifically when movements and organizations are advancing the sustainable stewardship of life and ecosystems. It is it's own virtuous cycle.