How Much Does a Business Need to Believe in Sustainability to Do It Well?

“If you’re pushing sustainability because you think it will enhance the company’s reputation, you’ll have a problem with authenticity, because they’ll be times when your reality doesn’t live up to your rhetoric. But if you’re into sustainability because you think it will drive innovation, then talking about it almost becomes irrelevant.”  –Hannah Joes, Nike’s sustainability chief.

How much does a business need to believe in sustainability to be successful at it?  If innovation joins (i) smarter resource usage, (ii) reduced compliance costs, (iii) new markets, (iv) smarter and happier employees, (v) healthier environments and societies and yes, (vi) an enhanced company reputation as benefits of a sustainable business, and we know that sustainability can’t be faked, how much do we need to believe in it to practice it?

If you’re reading this, you’re seasoned enough to know that to practice sustainaibilty to improve reputation puts you in jeopardy. That’s an easy one. But how about if we create a business that sits somewhere on the scale of sustainability because we only care about attracting top employees or driving innovation–are we inauthentic then?

How far does authenticity in one area extend to the whole mission? Is it only our commitments to environmental and social good that give us a pass from being labeled as cause-washers, shallow business types or bandwaggoners? Amidst the nuances, buzzwords and tactics, I’ve lost sight of sustainability’s common denominator.

How successful can we be at sustainability if we don’t care about all of its pieces, participants and outcomes? Is true social responsibility even teachable?

Image credit M.C. Escher.

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Leave a comment
  1. Sloane Berrent March 29, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    I agree with your post, and your hesitation about what the future of sustainability means. It’s confusing to know what “counts” and what is going to make a difference in the long run. I’ve sorta come to a point where I say let the free market have it. So let everyone decide for themselves, and if it’s REAL or it’s faking it, or somewhere in between let the revenue of the business drive the answers and results.

    I’m hoping that way we see more case studies of what is working and not vs. the conversations before anything real has even happened.

  2. admin March 29, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    Sloane, absolutely agree about seeing the evidence of what works (for the business and for the cause). There’s still a lot of speculation. Sometimes I want to act completely from a place of feeling (intuition and compassion) and other times I get pulled into more defined ‘best practices’ and reporting. I think a balance is optimal, but it can be hard to strike.

    Thanks for your comments and for giving the free market room to show us what will stick.


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