It’s Time To Kill Sustainability-As-Usual Before It Kills Us
We need to design a new sandbox for companies, one that is optimized to address climate change effectively and urgently
This has been a weird summer so far, with deadly heat waves and other extreme weather events taking place around the world, as well as plenty of corporate activity on sustainability, with companies making progress on different fronts from plastic use to carbon reduction.
This all coincided with another important piece of news — John Elkington’s recall of the term ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (TBL), which he coined in 1994. In an HBR article Elkington made the case that while the concept was valuable in helping many companies rethink how they do business it did not succeed to serve as a catalyst for system transformation, as Elkington was hoping for.
Elkington’s recall is more than just an interesting thought experiment — it is a wake-up call. “To truly shift the needle, however, we need a new wave of TBL innovation and deployment,” he writes. I agree. TBL was instrumental in shaping business thinking about sustainability issues in the last couple of decades, helping create a sandbox in which most corporations operate now to address their social and environmental impacts. While this sandbox was fresh and promising in the 90s, offering companies new ways to shift from business-as-usual practices, it is growingly becoming a quicksand, where companies get stuck with a sustainability-as-usual mindset that puts our future in danger.
Elkington himself described this well in a video he prepared for the 5th International Reporting 3.0 Conference: “it is almost as we’re on a commercial airline and we’re headed at full speed towards a very big mountain. Now, if you look at the dashboards, at the dials at the cockpit it is clear that we have enough fuel, we’re going in the right speed, the temperature in the cabin is wonderful, the food is being served, the audio system is working quite nicely, but we’re still headed for that mountain, and most of the reporting that we do doesn’t take this mountain properly into account.”
This is not just about reporting of course, but also about the action reported. Take for example Starbucks’ decision to eliminate plastic straws globally by 2020, which is a good representation of the sustainability-as-usual sandbox. It sounds like a worthy effort — after all, Starbucks uses more than 1 billion straws every year and it takes “about 200 years for polypropylene plastic straws to break down under normal environmental conditions,” according to Sam Athey of the Plastic Ocean Project. It’s also a move that can have a ripple effect, with more companies following Starbucks, helping making plastic straws a thing of the past. So, what’s wrong with it?
Well, nothing and everything is wrong with it at the same time. It is a good move with a probable positive impact, but it is also not good enough because it doesn’t help steer away the airplane in Elkington’s metaphor from the mountain in time. Nevertheless, the sandbox celebrates these steps because we got used to believe that no matter how incremental these actions are (“straws make up only about 4% of the plastic trash by number of pieces, and far less by weight” according to As You Sow), they are still important because they can add up and thus make a difference. This wasn’t just a matter of wishful thinking, but also a reflection of the sandbox’s mindset, where every little step helps us move in the right direction.
While the sustainability-as-usual sandbox pushed companies to listen to their stakeholders, not just their shareholders, and take notice of sustainability issues it didn’t provide them (and us) clear benchmarks articulating what ‘good enough’ actually means. The numerous frameworks developed in the sandbox over the years (ESG, CSR, GRI, EP&L, Shared Value, Integrated Reporting, and B Corps to name a few) created for the most part more noise than signal, adding rather than reducing the complexity of addressing sustainability challenges and evaluating progress. In addition, the sustainability-as-usual solutions have been for the most part voluntary-based, making it easier for companies to get away with incremental steps and vague reporting on their progress.
Furthermore, there was no clear sense of urgency in this sandbox. Even if we had a sense that we’re flying towards the mountain, the underlying assumption was that it’s far enough and we still have time to change course. This may explain perhaps why the sandbox tolerated incrementalism and inconsistent action, not to mention what Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay” — “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.”
Now we have two options in front of us. One is to keep working on improving the sustainability-as-usual sandbox, assuming that given the systemic constraints (markets driven by short-termism and shareholder primacy for example) of implementing a more radical sustainability agenda, this route is still our best hope. The second option is to follow Bucky Fuller’s advice — “you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” — and design a new sandbox, one that is optimized to effectively address “the single greatest crisis the planet has ever faced” — climate change.
I believe that while a new sandbox is not a guarantee for success, staying within the current one is a recipe for failure, and the reason is simple — time, or the lack of it. At this point, we can’t win this fight unless we win fast, and we can’t win fast with a sustainability-as-usual mindset. As Alex Steffen puts it: “In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat.”
A clear sense of urgency is not just the raison d’etre of a new sandbox, but also its dominating feature. The sustainability-as-usual sandbox was and still is dominated by the need to articulate, clarify and justify the business case for sustainability. In the terms of Simon Sinek’s golden circle, this is the ‘Why’ element (why you do what you do? What’s your motivation? What’s your purpose). The ‘When’ element has been absent and thus the ‘How’ and ‘What’ were influenced very little by it. The new sandbox on the other hand will be grounded in the ‘When’, which means that the basic question needs to change from ‘is there a business case for it?’ to ‘can it make an impact in time?’.
In the next couple of articles I will share my ideas for the new sandbox. Not sure they’re the best ones, but I hope they can help a collective effort, such as the one John Elkington is leading to consider what’s next. In the meantime I’d like to share a few principles that I believe should be at the heart of the new sandbox:
1. It should be both radical and practical — one without the other is useless.
2. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) should be a guiding design principle.
3. The 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal will become a benchmark, articulating what ‘good enough’ is. It needs to be implemented on a corporate level according to a science-based timeframe and be enforced by regulation (think GDPR) and stakeholder activism.
4. The ‘how’ is Simon Sinek’s golden circle is the missing part — we have a pretty clear idea about the ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘what’. How we do it? That’s what we need to focus on.
5. Innovation is critical. At the same time it needs to be humane and responsible, or else it will destroy more value than it can create.
6. Cities will play an important role in shaping business thinking.
7. This is a culture war. We can win it.
The sustainability-as-usual sandbox was created with the best intentions in mind to create a new and better operating system. However, with all the progress companies have made within it, this sandbox is just not good enough to steer the plane away from the mountain, and therefore we need to eliminate it before it destroys any chance we have for a brighter future.