Learning from History: A Rally Call to Emerging Millennial Business Leaders to Build for Sustainability

A Historical Perspective of the Sustainability Movement in Business

Throughout time, humans have coexisted with nature and her cyclical life systems. Indigenous tribes, for instance, practiced warfare to maintain the right human population to be in balance with the available plant and animal life necessary for sustenance. During the 19th century industrial revolution, however, we created a linear system that is inherently at odds with planet earth. A linear system cannot be run indefinitely on a planet with finite resources. This resulted in people no longer seeing the entirety of systems, but rather the world in smaller components; only what was right in front of them.

From the onset, some instinctually questioned the inevitable dangerous consequences of this way of thinking, and initial conservation efforts began. At the turn of the 20th century, President Roosevelt had the foresight to imagine the negative consequences of development. He wrote, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and By leading the 1906 American Antiquities Act. Before his leadership could catalyze longstanding impact, the World Wars shifted focus elsewhere.

To restart the economy after the wars, industry focused on producing needed goods as quickly and efficiently as possible. Design for obsoletion led to rapid production and accelerated the waste that devastated the environment. Agricultural pesticides built to catastrophic levels and caused immense environmental degradation. The 1962 book “Silent Spring”, by Rachel Carson, awakened the public, and environmental groups started to self-organize and advocate for environmental protection. Simultaneously, other groups organized around ideals of women’s rights, human rights, and labor rights.

The likelihood of the role of business in addressing these ills took a turn for the worse when Milton Freidman won the 1976 Nobel Prize for his contention that the sole role of business is to maximize profit. He wrote a scathing article that questioned and shamed any business leader who would consider social impact as part of their responsibility. He went so far as to conclude that social impact was a competitive disadvantage.

For the boomers coming of age at this juncture in time, it shaped their worldview to see their role in the world as having one singular focus. Business leaders of the previous generations didn’t think this narrowly. They knew they had a responsibility to their communities, and not just to the elusive shareholder. We’ve been paying for this worldview ever since.

To counter this worldview by putting language and a definition around the importance of sustainable development, the World Commission on Environment and Development published the Brundlant Report in 1987. Titled “Our Common Future”, the article gave the modern world its definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It also outlined that sustainability reached across social, economic, and environmental goals, re-uniting disparate industry, environmental and social rights groups in synergistic collaboration.

Turning into the final decade of the 20th century, businesses now knew what they were working toward, but they didn’t know how to achieve it. The founding of initiatives such as The Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Dow Jones Global Sustainability Index helped businesses understand how to measure and report on their success. The term “triple bottom line” was coined to refer to companies measuring their efforts not only on the financial bottom line, but also on ecological and social metrics.

In the 2000s environmental awareness accelerated and mainstream corporations began adopting sustainability as a corporate strategy. Most efforts were one-off initiatives or campaigns with a social mission. These efforts came to a halt at the end of the decade when, due to the economic downturn, corporations de-prioritized sustainability to focus back on profit.

While initial recovery from the 2008 — 2009 recession had been slow, a new generation of businesses leaders have emerged with the awareness that the 1950’s design for obsoletion paradigm is not a sound economic model, let alone social or environmental practice. Accordingly, governments, corporations and community groups are working together to address climate change at the systemic level. The companies that have progressive stances on sustainability are poised to win at market. For example, Patagonia has embedded environmental activism into their everyday work. And Unilever has stated that by 2020 they will double their profits and decrease their environmental footprint by half.

Today we realize that the linear processes introduced by the industrial revolution interrupt the natural cycles that sustain our world. Because sustainability and business are inherently linked, we can no longer make trade offs with social, ecological or economic priorities. But we can’t wait for the current business leaders to make the changes fast enough. The boomers who are in sitting the c-suites of the world’s largest corporations are not adequately prepared to create the world vision that will sustain our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. We Millennials hold the key.

To my fellow Millennials, claim your role as a vital part of the solution to positively change and protect our world. Instead of seeking initiatives that create less bad, think about what positive impact your business can leave behind. Enroll those in your organization with soft skills to partner with the traditionally tech-focused sustainability counterparts in your organization to create compelling messages that move minds, hearts, and hands. Lastly, adopt a mindset of adaptability and resiliency, because the one thing that can be predicted is that change is inevitable.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” –Mahatma Gandhi