I’ve been thinking…

Sustainability makes sense in every way, so why aren’t more New Zealand businesses getting involved?

I was talking to a friend the other day, and I reckon may just have given me the answer to that question. Now my friend is a smart guy – he has an MBA, owns a successful business employing 30 staff that he built himself and is taken very seriously by a lot of other business people.  When I told him that I was doing a Masters studying sustainable business practices he laughed. I asked him what was so funny, and he said something very interesting: “mate, that green hippy shit is all well and good when things are going well, but when business is tough, doing business has to be the priority”. I asked him what sustainability actually meant, and he said “for me today, it’s keeping sales up and costs under control so I make a profit. Sure we recycle our paper, but the fate of dolphins makes no difference to whether I am able to trade tomorrow, so sustainability is a very low priority to me.” I probed further, and he was aware of the triple bottom line, but thought of it as a “nice to have” idea that was well behind simply staying in the black. Shortly afterwards I was talking to my son’s new girlfriend. She is a high flyer, and at the age of 25 is working in Canada for one of the big 4 accounting firms on a 6 figure package. When we talked about my studies of sustainable business she said “our firm does some work on the triple bottom line, but I can’t see how it makes for better business”.

Two very intelligent, well educated and influential people, one a male mid 40s entrepreneur and the other a mid 20s female chartered accountant, and both dismissive of sustainability as a business concept. Why?

After further discussion with them and other business people I know alongside the research I am doing for my degree, I might just have found the reasons why sustainable development has failed to take off: sustainable and development. I believe that they’re the problem because they’re words, and words are how we communicate ideas; whether that idea is to go to the Warehouse because that’s where everybody gets a bargain or to vote for John Key because he promises a brighter future. And we can no longer buy Kentucky Fried Chicken but have no problems getting KFC because fried food is unhealthy.

Let’s start with sustainability. It’s a word that gets used all the time these days, but what does it mean to the people running New Zealand’s commercial sector? Most of them are like my friend – male, middle aged, middle class and pakeha, and my research suggests his perspective is pretty typical. To them it’s a word that means “environmentalism”, and that leads directly to “greenies” which means “idealistic, dope smoking, hippies on bicycles that are anti-business”. And that’s a problem because the people who most have the ability to change the way we do things will never take “dope smoking hippies on bicycles” seriously.

And then there’s development. The business model we have been using for the last century or so seeks continuous growth and expansion, and to most business people, that’s what “development” means to them. That interpretation brings about two problems: first, our finite planet means continuous growth is logically impossible which makes the term “sustainable development” meaningless to the people we need to convince. Alternatively, “sustainable development” allows (unconstrained) expansion and growth under a cover of greenwash.

Making sustainable development as defined and described back in 1987 the only game in town is vital, but the people we most need to convince and persuade have a different perspective on it which means they’re not interested. The academic community have found defining sustainability problematic, and there is little agreement about “operationalising” the concept, so how come we expect a business person to immediately “get it”? I’ve been selling intangibles for most of my working life, and I soon discovered the importance of describing the benefits your prospect will enjoy in their own language. When I was a financial planner I didn’t tell the retired farmer entrusting me with his dollars that my company would place his assets in a portfolio of financial instruments diversified in accordance with modern portfolio theory. I told him we would make sure his investment gave him good returns and we’d keep it safe by not putting all his eggs in one basket.

We need to do the same thing; we need to find a way to describe sustainability and sustainable development that makes it exciting and relevant to a middle aged white man. If we fail to do that, sustainable development will stay a fringe concept until it’s too late.

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2 thoughts on “I’ve been thinking…

  1. That’s a really good point, and makes a lot of sense, and is classic selling the sizzle, but first we need to know what a sizzle looks like. I’m thinking that an initial step is knowing what the outcome (sustainable living) looks like and then we can find ways to describe it so people can think “I want a piece of that”.

  2. I would take that a little further – we need to describe sustainability in a way that makes it exciting and relevant to everyone. Just as you would pitch your financial planning message in different ways to different customers, we need to develop a proper marketing strategy for sustainability.

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