How to talk sustainability

talk and talk by nyoin.


Corporate sustainability has undoubtedly hit the mainstream. This collective awakening appears to have taken on a somewhat schizophrenic character as various people grapple with what sustainability means and how to do it.

The enormity of the challenge requires us to value every contribution people choose to make. As sustainability guru and entrepreneur Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest, “When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.”

Recognising a human tendency towards territoriality – in the sustainability game as much as in any other – we’d like to encourage a deeper dialogue between this somewhat disparate band of activists. Allow me this opportunity to do a few introductions:

Fast-lane philanthropists

Passionate and dedicated, fast-lane philanthropists seek new and creative ways to channel corporate donations towards the greater good. With billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet handing out sizeable chunks of their wealth, the new philanthropists face the significant challenge of aligning the sheer scale of contributions with the capacity of well-grounded organisations to put it to good use.

Upside: Much needed good work being done by trusts, foundations and NGOs who are the recipients of these funds.

Downside: Those who confuse philanthropy with sustainability settle for the booby prize: a small percentage of post-tax profits should not decoy us from interrogating how the money was made in the first place.

Good buzz words: good, give back, communities, hope, gift capital, CSI, previously disadvantaged, legacy.

Good-to-great greenies

Inspired by the green movement in the North, eco-enthusiasts are driving a change in how we live, shop, travel, learn – in short, everything. Open-hearted and highly networked, they forge alliances that span corporates, new agers, school teachers and designers. Backed by management gurus (like Peter Senge) and cheesy sound-bytes (‘Green is the new black’), they have successfully nudged the eco brand from doomsday depression to the win-win zone in the last year.

Upside: Highlight natural capital depletion as the fundamental concern.

Downside: Criticised for caring more about critters than about the poor, they can unwittingly sustain the perception that sustainability is primarily an issue for rich white people.

Good buzz words: green, recycle, eco-everything, carbon footprint, carbon taxes, carbon trading, post-carbon society.

Check-box champions

These folk have been labouring in global working groups for at least 20 years, producing a plethora of guidelines, governance codes and standards on social and environmental issues. Though often criticised for their globe-trotting carbon footprints rather than celebrated for their creativity, they walk a fine line between practical and tactical: warning companies of the reputational risk of non-compliance while suggesting that sustainability can be as simple as painting-by-numbers.

Upside: They have put sustainability unequivocally on the boardroom agenda.

Downside: Sustainability gets relegated to mind-numbing checkboxes, giving rise to a burgeoning band of consultants happy to do compliance for cash.

Good buzz words: ISO, SRI, CDP, GRI (and many other TLAs), liability, assurance, stakeholders, governance, risk.

Born-again brandits

These are primarily communications and marketing types, with some of SA’s trendiest ad agencies in on the mix. Having made their fortunes touting all manner of widgets at any cost, they have undergone a revelatory experience in the last two years and now seek to use their considerable talents to atone for the rampant materialism they have promoted on behalf of their clients. Witty, intelligent, supremely confident, and with access to more resources than all other groups put together, they are likely to have a significant impact on the way sustainability is defined in the future.

Upside: A welcome addition of skills and resources to the sustainability game.

Downside: Old habits die hard; they are the group most likely to encourage the burgeoning eco-materialism that continues to decoy society from the core challenge of reducing how much the rich consume.

Good buzz words: authentic, brand, heart, love, make a difference, passion, green, consciousness, change the world.

Zero-fluff zealots

Serious, single-minded, system-thinkers: zero-fluff zealots measure sustainability by the extent to which companies literally re-think their business models. Disruptive innovation is their Holy Grail: smart products or services that reverse social inequalities and resource depletion, while being catapulted to scale due to their profitability. They include social entrepreneurs of all types, a handful of visionary business leaders and ex-activists, both red and green, who have been in the game long enough to get cynical (or perhaps realistic) about the singular motivation behind business action.

Upside: Up for a serious challenge, they are effectively seeking to redefine the capitalist system and thereby redeem its useful parts.

Downside: Tendency to fundamentalism can result in them overlooking or underestimating the potential contribution of other groups.

Good buzz words: innovation, scale, leverage, life-cycle thinking, resilience, systems change, agility.

May the conversations be fun, fruitful and lead to unexpected outcomes.

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3 Responses to How to talk sustainability

  1. Thank you for this wonderful and human as well as insightful interpretation of Sustainability. Not only is it humourous, but it reflects the ‘state of the nation’ and all the stakeholders (roleplayers). It is easy to identify leaders and laggards and it provides a context for the industry.

  2. Nicola Robins says:

    Thanks Reana. Looking forward to talking further! I am sure there are many more groupings in our game – feel free to add when the mood takes you.

  3. Robin Dally says:

    This is a great post, will do my best to get others to read it. Helping the different groupings talk with each other is a really useful exercise. It is so easy, (human) to think, ‘they are stupid… head in the clouds’ or ‘they’ve sold out by talking to big business’. Much harder to say, ‘they might talk different, wear different clothes, but essentially they want the same things as me’.

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