A call to (lay down) arms for Sustainability enthusiasts

Sometimes, in my professional life, I feel sad and I am sure that it happens likewise to many people like myself: enthusiasts of the infinite possibilities to create a more desirable future for our economies and societies offered by the current epoch, which are so often irresponsibly wasted.

This happens every time a colleague from the sustainability consulting community advises lightheartedly a client that changing the packaging of her products is “sustainability”, when someone confirms that adding a few “green products” to a portfolio is being sustainable, when a rating is created to label charity and employee volunteering activities as “sustainability projects”, when wrapping products in recyclable cardboard is called doing the “circular economy”, when “having a sustainability report” is called enough sustainability.

Hundreds of other dreadful examples could be added to the saddening list of misunderstandings and deadly blows stricken to the possibility of creating a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.

What is the problem with taking sustainability as the very serious and complex issue that it is? What with the fact that no organization can transition to sustainability and claim it in a fortnight? Well, maybe except some Amazon tribes if any will still exist after the latest “free resource frenzy” that is taking place under president Bolsonaro’s rule – rightly to satisfy our prosperous societies of “the developed world” and our lust for stuff.

What’s wrong with the truth, my friends? Which one, you may say? For starters: reporting – even according to the GRI – isn’t necessarily having a sustainability strategy, much less “being sustainable”. Not to talk of being “a green company”, or inviting your employees to the “Earth friendship day” once a year, or handing out aluminum flasks to everyone in the company. Why to greenwash, unsuccessfully for the most part, unsustainable practices when there is so much knowledge, innovation, intelligence and creativity around to turn any business into a much better one? 

Why calling “stakeholder engagement” sending out an online survey of random stakeholders about their preferred “green projects”? Why selling “sustainability consulting” as if it was a cheap commodity to wholesale to any businessperson wishing a shortcut to a largely rewarding marketing (BTW: it does not really work)? 

Am I the only one to feel the humbling scope of the task of kickstarting and accompanying a company in the transition to sustainability?

The fact is: if you don’t take into consideration the whole business model, from the mission of the organization – not the statement: its reason to exist – to its entire operations and end of life of products/services, you will never look wide enough to help people develop the creative, breakthrough solutions that will deliver on the mission. 

Of course I am for going gradual, step by step. Actually the art of advising on sustainability is exactly that of envisaging the whole picture and intimately stick to it, while administering it in small doses exactly proportionate to the capacity of the client to absorb it effectively and beneficially. It took me decades to learn, I confess.

However, this does not equal to going by sparse “random acts of sustainability”, without a prior reflection about “how to change the way we work to match the needs of our stakeholders while keeping the three pillars of sustainability balanced and growing aligned”.

The entrepreneur who inspired me most during and after my studies with Bob Pojasek and Suzanne Farver at Harvard University was Ray Anderson, the late owner and CEO of Interface. When he had his “epiphany” – he says: nothing less – in 1994 he gathered some of the most brilliant “sustainability minds” of his time and after a lot of mulling over set his business on a 25 years – zero impact mission. 

25 years: a generation! He died in the meantime, but the company as to my knowledge mostly made it, becoming a role model and an inspiration for many other companies around the world.

When I talked the last time with Richard Northcote, then the excellent CSO of Covestro, a few days before his most unfortunate sudden death, he was flying to New York to meet a group of CEOs and CSOs for a series of inspiring workshop sessions lead by Interface, with the aim of generating more sustainability momentum in the business community. They draw attention of business leaders from everywhere nowadays.

It took a kind of a spiritual shock, an epiphany, many knowledgeable experts in different fields, full commitment from shareholders and all X level executives, strong leadership and unwavering conviction to make Interface into what it is after 25 years.

Shall we all step back a second and consider how challenging sustainability is? But lo and behold: how rewarding, and necessary too!

Notwithstanding its difficulty and complexity, humanity cannot survive without a sustainable revolution in the mid-short term and a radical turnaround of the socio-economic paradigm in a slightly longer. Agenda 2030 is the very least that humanity needs and we are already underperforming on it irresponsibly. 

So, finally, what is my call to (lay down) arms to the “sustainability community”?

My friends, colleagues, so called “competitors”: how many of you do know that “competition” has its Latin etymology in the concept of “petition for something together, or perform a duty, an office together”? Let’s then “compete” in the real sense: let’s be aware that we are all small ants collaborating to a huge task that is needed for the survival and benefit of the whole community populating the anthill. 

Let’s stop to randomly stick the 17 Goals logos on empty, polished websites and reports without a deep, humble reflection that, first of all, every human activity is currently unsustainable and there is a lot of work to do. Again with the exception of the occasional Yanomami or Bushmen tribe.

Let’s stop selling easy, false hopes of a speedy maquillage that would magically make our clients’ businesses the “best for the planet” and thus the market leaders in their industries with no painful effort and sacrifice (here too in the etymological meaning of “making something sacred” i.e. transforming harmful practices into sustainable ones, capable of respecting the three pillars).

Let’s recover our integrity and tell C-suite executives that the journey to sustainability implies trying to prepare for the climate emergency and its consequences, included more epidemics like the very light one that is already sending a good share of humanity berserk. 

Furthermore, let’s also tell that such situation will imply that without doing something radical to contribute to the mitigation of the looming climate disaster (mitigation: we cannot prevent it anymore, guys, let’s be honest) their business will go bust because sooner or later governments will have to try to make something serious about the problem.

Really, my friends, colleagues and “common petitioners”: lets get together, stop elbowing each other to try to get a share of the carcass of our economy. It is much more interesting to set to work to make the herd prosper in a sustainable way and feast later on, when there will be plenty of abundance for everyone, everywhere. Because of sustainability, of course.

Ah, by the way: in the process of tending to the herd, there is plenty of work for everyone, providing we seek it with integrity, humility and sense of reality.