11 Jul How to Make Progress in Moving Away From Levels of Unsustainability, not Moving Towards Sustainability
Many believe the underpinnings of the modern business sustainability movement can be traced back to Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpet. Ray Anderson was an inspirational force who recognized companies have the power to shift what they focus on and the outcomes they achieve. Over more than 20 years, Interface Carpet has made herculean strides shifting their business model to integrate sustainability into most everything they do. They have moved beyond reducing impact to shifting their focus toward restoration and climate stability.
Business is people. It is as simple as that. People coming together in common cause to provide value to the customers they are there to serve. Some believe the purpose of business is to make money. That is but one outcome, not an end in and of itself. It is not that this outcome should be ignored, to the contrary. A business cannot sustain itself it if cannot manage itself well, provide value for customers, the community it serves and its employees, while providing return for investors/owners. At the end of the day, revenues need to exceed expenses. Any value the company commits to provide to those it is there to serve cannot be provided if it cannot stay in business.
Over the past twenty years many frameworks have emerged to help shift the focus away from financial performance as the exclusive measure of business success. These frameworks address a fundamental management challenge in business. That challenge is being able to measure what needs to be managed – above and beyond exclusively measuring and reporting on finances and financial management. For that reason, reporting sustainability frameworks have emerged. These frameworks include:
Companies focusing resources on reporting progress in this regard is certainly a good thing. However, where this effort is falling off the rails is the assumption that any company is in fact, achieving sustainability. For the past 4 years I have been teaching an online Sustainability Leadership MBA course on Sustainability Reporting. I authored this course when I was adjunct professor at my MBA Alma Mater, Green Mountain College. Today the course is being updated and will be taught at Prescott College- the institution that has taken over the MBA program that GMC launched back in 2005- and was offered until GMC closed their doors in 2019. In this course, MBA candidates choose a company that both signed on to the UN Global Compacts SDGs and utilizes the GRI framework for reporting. The students analyze the sustainability reporting of the chosen company throughout the entirety of the course. What invariably gets pointed out, is how chosen companies (Monsanto (before being acquired by Bayer), Pepsi, Walmart, etc.) focus on what has been achieved in their effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase recycling rates, or engage in stakeholder engagement. The tone and focus of these reports is solely on progress the company is making. Absent are the challenges the company has faced. The learning they achieved on the heels of those challenges. This is the case, I believe, because these documents are perceived as marketing documents. Sustainability is tough. It if were so simple, we wouldn’t be in the climate predicament we are in now. It would have been solved decades ago. Transparency is often considered a trait of a company that gets sustainability. Being open and sharing information with stakeholders is key to being transparent. The GRI reporting standard does address the point about transparency. It is referred to as “Balance”, in principle 1.6 of GRI’s Foundations document. The purpose of this principle states, “The reported information shall reflect positive and negative aspects of reporting organization’s performance to enable reasonable assessment of overall performance” (GRI, 2016, p. 13)
Models exist to allow a company to ascertain its strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. Models exist to assist companies to progress forward, chipping away at their level of unsustainability, helping move to greater sustainability. Models are helpful but are always incomplete. A model is an attempt to summarize a system into visual components in order to see the pieces and how those pieces fit into the whole. A model ultimately is designed to act as a map. A way to interpret the whole and its component parts. Systems thinking teachers go out of their way to make a very important point regarding models. That is any model is and always will be incomplete. A map is never the territory it represents. It is an approximation, regardless of how much detail a map or model has. Just like a pilot flying an airplane. The airplane is never exactly on course. The pilot, may, it be a human or a computer, is always adjusting to get closer to being on course. Do we wait until the model of how to move forward in our collective competition against climate change, is more complete? Since any model we build will always be an approximation and will never be complete, no.
Many companies that have signed on to some form of sustainability reporting, incorrectly communicate a sense of arrival. True sustainability is never achievable. It’s a matter of perspective, awareness and maturity as a company. The goal post of what is achievable shifts over time. Begin at your beginning. Start with where you are, with what you perceive and collaborate with those who have been through what you want to go through. Learn from others, make mistakes, be transparent and realize you are not working towards sustainability, you are working to be less unsustainable.
Anderson, Ray, C. (2009). Business Lessons from a radical industrialist. St. Martin’s Griffin. New York.
GRI. (2016). Global Reporting Initiative Foundations 101. Retrieved from: