Posts Tagged ‘cause’

Is sustainability as ‘a cause’ deterring business?

An acquaintance from my years in high tech emailed me the other day. I let him know I had left the tech marketing firm I co-founded to move my work into sustainability. I cringed when I read his reply: “That’s a great cause and I wish you well.”

My response surprised me. What’s wrong with being associated with a great cause and someone wishing me well? Nothing, of course. It’s just that sustainability is not a cause for me, at least not any longer. And wishing me well made it sound like, well, I’d need all the help I can get.

Sustainability, for me, has evolved into a mindset, a practice, a method of operating a company, a basis for business purpose and competitive distinction. Defeating poverty is a great cause. Pursuing sustainability is simply smart business.

The work of idealists and activists

I’m guessing many in business still think of sustainability, to the degree they think of it at all, as the work of idealists and ideologues. You know, those people whose ardent support for their cause make them appear a tad unreliable as business executives or consultants.

Sustainability in business is growing in awareness and practice. But the breadth and depth of adoption is not nearly as great as it needs to be. I worry the association of sustainability with environmental or social activism deters many in business from embracing it.

Causes are the perceived stock-in-trade of nonprofits, governments, NGOs and religious institutions. Businesses trade in products and services. Unless business leaders can draw a direct line from sustainability to greater success in selling their goods and services (and, fortunately, growing numbers can and have), they will leave sustainability to the green crusaders.

Causes tend to be long-term, sometimes never-ending, in nature: civil rights, smoking prevention, food safety, pollution control, wetland conservation, climate change. Modern business, perhaps to its detriment, dwells in the short term. For lots of reasons, only about half of businesses are still around five years after their founding.

Obsessing over health of business, not planet

As someone who started an employee-based business and operated it for more than 13 years, I don’t believe most owners or executives lose sleep over the health of the planet. They do, however, obsess over the health of their companies.

And it’s in that obsession where they must discover sustainability as the source for business wellbeing. Not a cause for which they have precious little time or resources to entertain. But rather a method of organizing and operating that improves their chances of keeping the doors open, bills paid, employees, customers and shareholders satisfied, and competitors at bay.

Prominent sustainability consultants Bob Willard and Peter Senge speak of the five stages and drivers of sustainability in business. Starting at a place of non-compliance with environmental standards and regulations, a company moves into the second stage of compliance in response to regulatory demand and public pressure. Stage 3 is moving beyond compliance to seeing the possibilities for ongoing cost reductions and reputation or brand enhancement. The next stage is making sustainability an integrated strategy for creating business opportunity and managing risk. The fifth stage is a mission-driven business that places sustainability at the core of its values.

Except perhaps at Stage 5, the motivation isn’t saving the planet. Businesses are driven by the desire to be in compliance, make or save money and become more competitive. They need to know they can achieve these and other goals by becoming more sustainable. That’s cause enough for them.