Making Sustainability Work

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This book review originally appeared in The Ecologist.

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I really wanted to like this book.

The subject matter is hugely important, and it is (as the front cover pull-quote tells us) the “lucid, well-written and timely” second edition of a successful book, with a foreword by John Elkington.

But the fact is that, despite its good points, this book will not easily fast track anyone wanting to make their business sustainable.

And even if every item in its prescription were to be applied to every business in the world, it still would not solve the sustainability crisis.

Let me start with what the authors do well. The book lists a large number of case studies: examples of what real companies have done in real life situations to address their sustainability issues.

Dropped into the text along the way, these provide excellent, concrete examples of what works.

The missing connections

The problem is that the authors do not really connect up these examples to show the deeper change process that is going on. The cases remain separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with only a sketchy, high-level outline of the bigger picture they are part of.

The sustainability process, the authors say, runs from business / economic context through leadership commitment, to sustainability strategy, which (supported by structures and systems) then leads to business results, stakeholders’ reactions, and ultimate long-term performance.

This may be true, but the framework is too general to provide a useful focus for how to make my business more sustainable. There is too little description of how to achieve each step: how to generate leadership commitment, how to craft a sustainability strategy, and so on.

Despite the examples, this is not the ‘how to’ book the authors claim. Rather, it is a ‘what to do’ book — and the list of what to do is long.

Generalities do not solve real world problems

For the authors, sustainability includes: ethics, corporate governance, reporting transparency, business relationships, financial returns, community development, reliable and good quality products/services, employment practices, and (finally) protection of the environment.

While this list is comprehensive, it is so all encompassing that it obscures the core of what sustainability is really about. It prevents focus. And good leadership, strategy and management are as much about choosing what not to do as choosing what to do. (And is ‘providing quality products / services’ really part of a ‘sustainability’ agenda?)

The authors are academics. They do a good job of describing the space. But they are not writing a user manual, explaining what to focus on, or how to convert the case study examples into a change programme for your business.

This book will be useful for academics and students who want to understand a full ‘shopping list’ of what might be involved in creating sustainability. But for anybody already running a business it is, for the most part, too general.

Addressing the underlying causes

As the title suggests, the book’s core approach is centred around metrics. Here it does a good job of adding ‘sustainability’ measures to the existing corporate paradigm: mission, strategy, metrics, organisation structures, reward systems, results.

This seems logical. But from a systemic perspective it does not directly address the underlying causes of non-sustainability. It merely takes a business system that is already under stress and adds another layer of complexity to it. Thus:

“Companies should integrate social, environmental and economic concerns into all areas of the organisation. Decisions can be improved by … integrating all current and future social, environmental and economic costs and benefits into decisions.”

This won’t address the sustainability crisis because, as Einstein told us, we cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.

What do we need instead?

The authors mention in passing three symptoms, though they fail to see their significance.

One is leadership commitment to sustainability. This is stated as a requirement: “The sustainability process begins”, it states, when “corporate executives decide whether the company should be sustainable, how sustainable it should be, and what resources are available to achieve sustainability.”

But no description given as to how this can be achieved.

Another symptom is stakeholder relationships. Again, relationships with customers, investors, and society are seen as important, but the book’s only solution is to define metrics and report openly.

And the third symptom is the emotions of employees, crushed by collapsing buildings in Bangladesh in the opening paragraph of the introduction, but then ignored by the authors in terms of the emotional transition process that would need to be managed in parallel to any metrics-driven corporate change process.

It’s all about relationships

The common factor in all three is relationships — specifically what Martin Buber would call ‘I-thou’ relationships:

  • Businesses that need to be reminded to “make quality products and services” have lost relationship with their customers
  • Companies that treat a human being as a human ‘resource’ and knowingly put her to work in a building that might collapse at any time have lost relationship with their staff, and
  • Leaders who find it hard to connect with their inner passion to “decide whether the company should be sustainable, how sustainable … “ have lost relationship with themselves.

It is this lack of focus on relationships, with our staff, customers, environment, and ourselves as leaders, that has led to the sustainability crisis. It is missing from much of our corporate culture, and it is missing from this book.

The measurement-led approach outlined here is useful, but only if we first understand what the measurements are for.

Relationships provide that prioritisation. They lie at the heart of sustainability, and represent the opportunity that sustainability brings:

  • The opportunity to create excitement and energy for what each ‘stakeholder’ group of people wants, instead of what exists today.
  • The opportunity to see the corporation not as an entity in competition with others, but as an ecology, an eco-system, of relationships.
  • The opportunity to create a business not as a separate entity, ‘using’ and ‘serving’ different classes of people in different ways, but instead as a focus of leadership and resources, drawing together different groups of people into an ecology or eco-system, built around a different but overlapping set of interests.

That is where sustainability is going, and it is clear in the examples but hidden in the structure of this book.

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