I spend a lot of time thinking about sustainability so I can understand it better, and that means I read a lot, including a lot of blogs. A good one I read recently was by Simon Harvey, and he said sustainability could learn from the porn industry. My first reaction was fear that I would have to start working naked, but fortunately Simon is smarter than that. He recognised that “in the highly competitive porn industry, businesses sell each other’s content all the time. They recognise that it’s better to sell something, rather than nothing – it’s all about industry revenue. They recognise that by working together they build the overall pool of customers for the industry, which then creates future opportunities.” Smart thinking. As a marketer I have always liked marketing, but a sustainability approach to business takes the idea to another level.
We all know about the triple bottom line, but for a lot of businesses the social dimension is taken to mean variations of being nice to the neighbours and giving money and goods to the deserving and needy. Which is very nice and guaranteed to make people feel warm and fuzzy, but there’s more to it. A key difference between the old model of business and sustainable business is that sustainable businesses operate within and as an integral part a series of interconnected systems as opposed to being external and separate. It’s pretty well straight from James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and recognises that nothing operates in isolation from anything else; and that the health and viability of any part of the system is determined by the health of the whole system, which is in turn determined by the health of every one of its components. Sustainability is all about win-win. On the other hand, the old model is based on competition between the business and everything else, and that there can only be one winner.
And that is bollocks.
We need to lose the idea of “competitors”, and start to look on these businesses as what they really are: allied businesses and even colleagues. They may share the same market, but they also share the same challenges, opportunities, hassles, suppliers and even employees. The smart and logical approach is to stop competing, rather to support each other with shared ideas, resources and solutions. If the market is too small for everyone; then why not work together to find ways to diversify and develop new and better solutions? The old model has the “weaker” player either being taken over or failing, and that is a short term “solution” because it shows the market is finite and the surviving business will reach a point where it has exhausted that market. If that happens, the resources it uses will also become exhausted, and it will also fail.
The sustainable business model recognises that because everything is connected; when one of us fails, then we all fail. When the bell tolls for one, it tolls for all.
No Man is an Island by John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.