A Sustainability Perspective

A conscious business needs a deeper, more authentic approach to sustainability…

The field of sustainability has widened in recent years. The early days of sustainable development were epitomised by the view that boundless growth is not sustainable. A sustainable way of working looked to reduce waste, reduce energy consumption. The earth was a living being, “Gaia”, and she was (is) dying through our plundering of her energy and resources. According to E.F Schumacher it was time to recognise the beauty of smallness and that the economic madness of marginal costing leads to us making huge surpluses of products that we can make for a billionth of a penny and ship to the other side of the world in order to make a profit – (the overheads get spread to such a point that the marginal cost of making an extra product is next to nothing). Green represented the ideal colour for the planet – green was health, green was vitality, green was good, green was the way things were always meant to be – fresh air, and nature allowed to b e herself – natural, with minimal interference from us. We were stewards, not owners of the planet. First ideologically, and then backed up by a range of scientists and different kinds of evidence, we were told that our current wealth-creating, resource-plundering approach was “unsustainable”.

Sustainability became about smallness, localness, wind and solar power – not oil. Things were running out, so being “lean” suddenly also meant being “green”. The green agenda was partially lifted out of the Green Movement and became the property of mainstream politics, the responsibility of us all.

Simply and inadequately put I know. This attempt to summarise is partial and aimed at creating a flavour of the this field. Businesses and organisations looking at sustainability have borrowed this “flavour”. Green audits, sustainability measures have been put in place. We measure the miles we travel, the amount of paper and electricity we use. Carbon “footprint” becomes a new business performance measure.

Companies have rolled out (ironically, on bit sheets of paper) poster campaigns, created green awards and gone for them, key performance indicators have been implemented and everyone has been encouraged to meet virtually and stop using the car.

To a greater or lesser extent these efforts have been more or less successful and the planet is still (we are told by some) warming up.

Yet there is another dimension to sustainability that is also at the heart of this agenda – one that is harder to pin down, to label or brand. And yet, it is also a dimension that is key to any organisation’s efforts to be truly sustainable. It is the sustainability of the concepts of “business” and “organisation” itself.

Many businesses have become places where process is more important than purpose, where repetitiveness and boredom have taken over the interest and energy of employees. The recent meltdown in the global economy, partly born of the greed of a minority, has fuelled already existing mistrust and cynicism about business as a concept, about the profit motive, about the competence not only of leaders and managers but also of bankers, or investors, of decision makers in the public sector, even of teachers, trainers and consultants. There was already an ingrained cynicism before, now it has deepened and become more dogged and tired.

I have a real sense in many organisations that ought to be places of enthusiasm and commitment (in hotels, in catering, in health care) that people have no sense of “mojo” and are going through the motions of work. That “extra mile” that generates creative thinking leading to innovation is missing, the spark is gone. Even as the planet warms up, we are entering a kind of enthusiasm ice age.

The concept of business itself is becoming unsustainable. Some would suggest it is simply morphing, that business has been heading online for years, and that the future of products and services are on ebay, not on the high street. I know a number of ebay sellers who are doing very well but are also secretly sick of stuffing packages in their garden sheds.

I would argue that sustainability in business and organisational life – even as we all try to cool the planet down – requires us to warm the planet up on another level. We need to rekindle enthusiasm for trading with each other at an individual and social level. We need to “fire” our interest with some vibrant thinking that cannot be delivered by the older, discredited models. Training is dying and will soon be dead. Consultancy is in its death throes. Management theory will persist but is dead spiritually, and degrading operationally under the weight of tiredness and cynicism from the emerging generation Y (A generation of old folk in young bodies).

We’ll need a new theory of work, we’ll need to think new thoughts and lay old ones to rest.

We need to make sustainability sustainable.

The trap that many organisations fall into is that they turn sustainability into a managed programme. This then takes something that needs to be a felt value, something committed to at the levels of the emotion and will, and locates in the place where staff feel they are being instructed and impelled. Saying cheer up to a friend is very different from a boss ordering you to cheer up. Occasionally someone commanding us to cheer up can be a bit of a needed push, a wake-up call. Mostly it achieves quite the opposite effect. Ordering sustainability largely defeats itself. Without free commitment from each person, at the level of the heart, that commitment becomes one of official compliance. The order might overlap and coincide with the person’s own inner wish to make the organisation more sustainable, in which case the order is often experienced as patronising, an irritant.

Sustainability is usually rooted in the notion that we have one planet, and that this planet belongs to all of us. Too often sustainability is launched as a programme into the organisation as if it is owned by senior managers, who then order everyone to own sustainability, often borne of the wings of “our planet” rhetoric.

Compliance can be ordered. Task compliance can be ordered, Role compliance can be ordered. But compliance with a moral initiative cannot be ordered. Compliance here has to be freely offered. This requires moral imagination on the part of leaders. Moral imagination involves being able to act in ways that leave the freedom to volunteer fully intact in employees. It can’t be faked, nor tokenistic. Any “buy in” has to be freely done. That involves going beyond ordering, into the realms of respectful (though it can be passionate and urgent persuasion. Persuasion, born of moral imagination, always uses dialogue. Dialogue goes in both directions. Dialogue is damaged and diluted by spin, by threat, and by a feeling of being talked down to.

The dialogue on sustainability needs to allow questioning. Employees need the clear and honest picture of the organisation they work in, set in its wider environment. But we, as leaders, also need to accept that organisational employees are also citizens of a wider society, which includes family and friends. They have their own ideals, beliefs and values that might differ from the organisation’s.

Much sustainability appeals to common sense, and this is a very good starting point for dialogue. Common sense in common language, free of jargon, spin and acronyms. Common sense is so called because it is common – it is often a sense made of the world shared by most people. Sustainability’s common sense can focus on the idea that the business is more sustainable – both in commercial and “green” terms – when it reduces waste, when it is more conscious about the way it does it business, when it saves energy and operates lean and agile processes that allow it to operate with a minimal damaging impact on those around it. Common sense can often be backed up with real life stories and simple (but not simplistic) numbers to back it up.

We need to vary the style of dialogue with the different kinds of people who work in our organisation. We’ll need to locate conversations in different places and different times. Diversity is key here – there can be no sheep-dipping for employees, for though common sense may be common to all, the way we listen, learn and take on change is not. We are all a unique species of one when it comes to our individual responses. We can sheep dip but we will only top slice the understanding and commitment. But for our sustainability to be sustainable, the dialogue has to find the will force of each person and engage with it with moral imagination. We have to win others over, not with spin and implied threat, but with respect, debate, discussion, and a passionate attempt to arrive at common ground – the common ground of a common sense understanding of sustainability.

We’ll have to be prepared to change our views in the light of unexpected and useful challenges for people from any part or level of the organisation. We’ll need to keep the channels of dialogue open and be ready to change and adapt. Core values, at the level of common sense may well not change, but the means and pathways towards sustainable practice may vary over time and across the organisation.

Sustainability is a global issue but, in terms of meeting it freely and committing to it, it is a personal thing. A business that wishes to be more conscious has to be particularly conscious of why it is pursuing sustainability.  In terms of the literal meaning of the word “sustainable”, that will come fairly easy. Of course it wants to sustain itself and survive. In terms of the loaded meaning of the word – “sustainable = socially and environmentally responsible” – this can be no superficial label. Sustainability here means that we become aware of the footprint of our actions, in real time, both internally and externally. We seek to minimise waste for both cost and moral reasons. We become an organisation for whom sustainability is a route to business consciousness, because the very achievement of it, and commitment to it, requires us to be in a state of heightened internal and external sensing and engagement. When sustainability and conscious business converge, the organisation is, by nature, more self-aware, externally awake, and responsive and proactive. These are the elements of high performance.



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