As the world heats up due to climate change, so does the call for collective action to enable sustainable human activities.
Part of this manifests as a moral exhortation for the individual to consume less and support sustainable products. But a heavier responsibility must fall on businesses because they operate on a larger scale and have a greater impact on the environment.
The good news is that over the years, measures to go green have become more accessible. The cost of commercial solar installation has fallen 70% since 2010, for instance, with governments offering further tax credits to subsidize such measures.
When the move to be more eco-friendly also brings cost savings, making the change is a no-brainer. But in the big picture, approaching true sustainability is far more complicated and challenging.
Vagueness and complexity
Signs indicate that today’s businesses are earnest about prioritizing sustainability. As of this writing, over 9,500 companies and 3,000 non-business participants have committed to the UN Global Compact. More than 90% of the biggest companies in the world report on their sustainability and express willingness to be leaders in this area.
Your organization, regardless of size, probably implements its own internal measures and green practices. It could be small actions like going paperless or conserving energy usage in the office or bigger ones such as sourcing only fair trade products or going carbon-neutral.
Every small step counts, but businesses operate by the numbers. They have an inherent need to track and measure progress. And that’s where things become muddled.
At the highest level, third-party organizations offer certifications of sustainability. But the standards aren’t uniform. And justifiable criticisms have been leveled at the effectiveness of carbon offsets, for instance.
Moreover, any system used to assess sustainable practices can be gamed by businesses seeking to ‘greenwash’ their respective brands.
The truth is that gauging total environmental impact in the big picture is a complex endeavor. A business must be aware of its actions along the ‘triple bottom line’: economic, environmental, and social performance.
Too often, a narrow perspective is used in this assessment, failing to effectively evaluate the company in relation to those resource thresholds.
Selective risk aversion
The heart of the problem lies in the way businesses approach the entire matter of sustainability.
You’ll frequently hear corporate leadership and think tanks promoting the benefits of green practices as something that aligns with profit-making, which is the core thrust of any business.
Yet as The Guardian notes, while this can work, the argument is flawed. Profits don’t always align with what would be best for people and the planet.
If we only go green where those three interests converge, we’re limiting ourselves to a small set of actions proven to work without risk.
And yet you’ll find that, in other aspects of business operations, the accepted wisdom is that risk is something to be tolerated, even embraced to innovate.
Why is it that when it comes to taking steps to minimize the adverse impact of business operations on the planet, we demand a business case first?
Innovations like implementing a circular economic model necessitate a redesign of operations and inevitably require an investment of time, money, and effort. How can we get better at saving the environment if our organizations balk at the suggestion of risking profitability to try something new?
Embracing an ethical framework
There’s a simple, yet difficult, solution. Our drive to be sustainable must be disengaged from profiteering motives. We need to always operate within the framework of business ethics.
It’s a matter of changing mindset. Corporate thinking mostly disregards issues of morality. Do those C-suite presentations include slides on what’s right or wrong as often as they pull out numbers and project trends?
Without considering ethics, business leaders will fail to appreciate the nuances of doing what’s good versus what’s legal. They won’t readily distinguish between social responsibility and social development, between support and caring.
A business case, by definition, deals with what can be quantified. How do you measure the goodwill of a community? Can profits alone make a distinction between obeying the letter of compliance and serving in the spirit of true sustainability?
There are benefits to going above and beyond what the numbers can measure. You reap the rewards in the form of reputation and other intangibles.
Higher-educated, and therefore more desirable, talent will seek organizations whose ethical values align with their own. What goes around comes around, but indirectly.
Until we embrace the ethical drive for business sustainability and accept the risks of trying bigger and better things in service to that cause, our improvements will remain limited.