Why the hell hasn’t business sustainability hasn’t taken off?
It’s a much more efficient and cheaper way to do business, it improves market appeal, it keeps damn near all the stakeholders happy and if that’s not enough; by ensuring long term viability it even makes a business more valuable. On the other hand the status quo only works for a very few people, and even they’re facing problems – does “global economic crisis” sound familiar? In the past six years our national debt has risen nearly 56% from $184bn to $256bn, yet unemployment has risen from 3.8% to 7.3%, and would probably be higher if it wasn’t for the Christchurch rebuild. This may be one of the reasons that the number of New Zealanders taking antidepressants has doubled over the same period. In the mean time, the best way we can come up with to earn export dollars is to sell milk powder to China which is a major reason that most of our rivers are too polluted to swim in.
Seriously, what’s good about that picture?
It’s hard to fathom why we are so stuck in a failed system, but I think I may have figured it out. I was talking to a pommy mate the other day, and the conversation got onto that weekends ITM games. He looked at me and said “bloody stupid game rugby, don’t get why you Kiwis are so passionate about it”. I rose up on my hind legs and replied “I don’t get soccer – it’s 80 minutes where a bunch of guys kick a ball amongst each other (albeit very cleverly) and often the only way to work out who wins is a penalty shootout. Meanwhile, if anyone even looks at an opposing player in a cruel and derisive way, that player collapses in pain resulting in a penalty. Bloody silly game, don’t see why you poms are so passionate about it”.
The reason that sustainability is a fringe business paradigm is the same reason that poms like soccer while kiwis prefer rugby, people in Otago drink Speights and why my step-daughter would rather listen to One Direction than the Stones – it’s what everyone else does. Abraham Maslow reckoned that belonging was the next most important need after eating (physiological) and not being killed (safety); and one of the major ways that we show we belong to a group is to do what everyone else in that group does.
Unfortunately what most people do today is stupid stuff like driving a few hundred metres in a tonne of steel and glass (that costs a fortune to buy and run) just to buy a loaf of bread, or buy houses that are bigger than they need with money they don’t have. Businesses are just as stupid when they make long term plans that are dependent on an everlasting supply of finite resources that are quite obviously running out or work in buildings that need the lights on in daylight. Then they sell logs to China at a bargain price so they can buy them back as flat-pack furniture while moaning about their taxes being spent on unemployment benefits. Basically humans do really illogical and even stupid things because it’s normal and what everyone else does.
And that’s the problem – sustainability isn’t normal. It’s seen as being a different way of living and working and it’s frequently practised by people who have different values and philosophies from everyone else. Even when you convince people of the benefits, get them to acknowledge the limitations of the status quo to the point where they may actually want to adopt sustainable business practices; they won’t because doing so labels them as different and that means they will lose their place in the tribe.
We can’t change human nature but we can and must change sustainability so that it looks normal and people who don’t engage in it are seen as different and not fitting in, so here’s what I think we need to do:
- Stop describing sustainability as an alternative and better way to do business. When we do that we are acknowledging that the alternative is both real and an option. We’re still not experiencing the full impact of our bad habits, and that means it’s too easy to put off sustainability until the recession is over, the new branch has opened or the end of the financial year or wait until everyone else is also doing it. Why should I do something different and risk losing ground to my competitors?
- Lose sustainability awards. Seriously. It may be great to reward achievement, but does it actually inspire mainstream businesses to get involved in sustainability so they can get an award? Or does it make sustainability different from “normal” business? Operating sustainably should be just how a business is run if it wants to survive and is there an award for paying invoices on time? Or having an employee career development scheme?
- Look normal. I was at the pub the other day with a mate and there was a group gathered at a table nearby discussing a sustainable development. They all looked exactly like what most people think greenies look like and when I asked my mate (who is as green as anything) whether he or any other business person he knew would take them seriously he looked across and shook his head. “No. I’m sure they know their stuff but they look like they have no idea about life in the business world.”
- Stop defending sustainability. The moment we do that we are lost because the focus becomes on reasons it’s a dumb idea and we waste our time arguing against rubbish. If people challenge sustainability we need to shake our heads and look a little dumbfounded in the same way we’d look at someone who said eating fresh vegetables was unhealthy.
- Lose the environmental focus. Yep, that’s right, it’s time to stop being green. You and I both know that if the environment isn’t restored pretty well immediately we’re buggered, but Mary Pajero and Colin Commodore are either unsure or think it’s Someone Else’s Problem which means the more we bang on about saving trees and dolphins the more we lose their interest. We need to put the focus on what’s in it for them and show them that a sustainable business is an efficient, financially stable business that is a pleasure to work in and to own. The only way they can achieve that is by recognising the impact that their activities have on the environment and how that in turn comes back and bites them on the posterior.
Is that too hard? Or if we do that, will it mean we lose our identity as greenies and sustainability advocates and end up looking like everyone else? Will we lose our pride at being the brave and selfless eco-warriors who are standing at the abyss with our bicycles and bumper stickers?
- Normalising green behaviours – a new approach to sustainability marketing
- The Benefits of Green Business (wealthmans.wordpress.com)
- Live discussion: How can green marketing mainstream sustainability?
- Networked environmental data is the key to mainstreaming sustainability