Sustainable Excellence

There are two fundamental problems with any discussion around sustainability. The first is that no one thinks that not being sustainable is a problem that will happen to them. And second, even if they do think it’s going to happen to them, they believe they are merely one small cog within the vast global machine and that surely nothing they’re doing – and definitely nothing they should stop doing – is going to contribute much one way or the other. What’s great about Sustainable Excellence by Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell is that it addresses both of those problems for anyone willing to read it. Which is why, frankly, everyone should read it.

Cramer, who is the President and CEO of BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), an organization dedicated to sustainable business practices, and Karabell, who is President of River Twice Research and is an advisor at BSR, begin with the seminal definition of what they’re talking about (and which was introduced in 1987 by a United Nations commission headed by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Which sounds like the kind of “nice to have, be good to the earth, leave something for your kids” stuff that never convinces anyone to do anything.

So they add this to show that they mean, um, business:

Any transformation of business eventually comes back to money. While short-term profit can be sacrificed, long-term profitability cannot. Money is both a means and an end, and the role of capital in shaping the landscape of sustainable excellence can hardly be overstated.

In other words, Sustainable Excellence is a business book, because what we’re talking about isn’t just “having cleaner water because having cleaner water is nice”. We’re talking about real world business problems, because businesses will literally not be able to function in the way they have in the past. They will either adjust or they will die. Framed that way, sustainability seems a lot more like a “must have” than a “gee it would be nice if the polar bears weren’t so sad.”

To understand why businesses won’t be able to function as they have in the past, one has to think about the history of business a little differently than before. By and large business and culture have operated for millennia on a sort of “over there” strategy. Got garbage? Dump it over there. Got criminals? Ship ‘em over there. Need natural resources? Take them from over there and bring them over here – and if that makes over there unlivable, well, we don’t live over there, and we won’t ever think about anyone who does. And businesses could do this because the world was so damn big it kept us disconnected from the things we were doing to it (and to all the poor slobs who lived over there).

But that’s not the case any longer, is it?

On the one hand, the internet has us so connected that events that we may never have heard about are experienced as they are happening (for example, you can literally track the Amazon being deforested in real time). And on the other, the people we used to dump our garbage on, or who we used to take natural resources from? We’re connected to them too, aren’t we? And I don’t just mean via emails and Pinterest boards (although, of course, there’s that). We’re connected in a business sense. For as Cramer and Karabell point out:

A view that was once the sole province of environmental campaigners – that the world was transitioning away from an era of cheap energy, water, and other materials and toward scarcity, supply bottlenecks, and higher costs – has now become a core concern for businesses worldwide. Managers everywhere are worried that the basic foundations of global supply chains may be undermined by rising costs and expanding global demand. Companies such as Walmart and Hewlett-Packard are already debating whether they should abandon the extended supply chain model and embrace ‘relocalization’, which stresses relying on the suppliers closest to the point of sale.

Oh, and did you catch that part about “expanding global demand”? There’s an exploding global middle class out there, which was great when we were just trying to sell them stuff, but somehow less great when they want all the stuff we have. Why? Because if everyone lives like Americans live, the world runs out of resources overnight.

All of which leads to a bigger third problem – people can wrap their heads around fixing something that’s broken, but they are incapable of heading off a catastrophe, which is really what sustainability is about. And to be clear, “heading off a catastrophe” is different from believing something won’t happen to you. “Heading off a catastrophe” is an inability to believe it will happen at all. Which is probably why advertising has been so little help. For as Cramer and Karabell point out:

The sheer volume of ad campaigns that present messages of sustainability transcends any evidence that consumers act on those imperatives.

Now if you’re expecting this to wrap up with Cramer and Karabell’s “10 ways you can have a more sustainable business because if you don’t you’re gonna be toast” – well, I have disappointing news for you – there’s no list. In fact, many of the examples that the authors provide are actually failures. But,

In our view, these efforts merit recognition and support. Any company that makes a serious effort to reposition itself for the era of sustainable excellence will make mistakes, and those mistakes should be opportunities to learn, not reasons to dismiss the efforts.

And if the outcome of this struggle is that, that we pivot our thinking to an iterative approach, that mistakes aren’t dead ends, simply experiments to learn from – then there may actually be hope for us after all. In whatever way you’re trying to sustain your business.

 

Sustainable Excellence by Aron Cramer & Zachary Karabell was published by Rodale Books on 10/12/2010 – order it from Amazon here, or order from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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