Part I focused on my belief that we have arrived at the juncture where sustainability risks crossing over into the rarified world of “super words.” This scares me a bit, particularly given the very serious issues we face – from global warming and disappearing bees to over-fished oceans and drought-plagued cities. In the face of these very real problems, “sustainability” is now poised to become one of the top cross-industry marketing buzzwords of all time. Make no mistake, what we are seeing now is just the beginning. Other buzzwords come and go (“Dotcom”) or are industry specific (“Low-Carb”), but sustainability is different — it is bigger, stronger, faster, more flexible. It is the Six Million Dollar Man of marketing words, and Madison Avenue is doing what it does best right now and grabbing hold for the ride. This is the old scorpion and the frog scenario – it’s just in their nature. And that is hugely risky given the real issues at stake here will not, repeat NOT, be solved by selling more Frosted Flakes by highlighting that the corn comprising said Flakes was “Sustainably Harvested” because the farmers started sorting their recycling.
Archive for October, 2007
I am on a plane now heading back from New York where I spent the week meeting with people from a wide variety of nationalities, backgrounds and industries. The meetings were all over the map really…from the general counsel at a top investment bank to a Romanian real estate developer to the CIO of a Fortune 50 manufacturing company to a marketing exec focused on Gen X and Gen Y to a U.S. Congressman and former Presidential candidate. Despite the huge differences among these individuals there was a common thread weaving the conversations together: sustainability . Each of these people as well as the dozens of others I met with, displayed a mixture of fascination, curiosity and enthusiasm for sustainability. So as I sit here on the plane headed back to San Francisco I can help but dwell on these conversations, how different these people were, and how much interest and inquisitiveness they expressed around sustainability. I’m also deeply struck by how different the world is now than it was 20 years ago when I began my career in conservation, working with companies like Eddie Bauer and Timberland on cause-related or “green” marketing campaigns.
So viola! We have our first blog entry…to try and make some sense of this extremely popular and potent word “sustainability” and why everyone is so interested in it. In particular I’d like to examine what all of this means for business leaders like you and me.
Because there is a lot here it probably makes sense to break this up, so we’ll dig into all of this via a three-part series broken down by answering the following questions:
Part I: Manhattan Dreaming
How has this word taken on so much meaning so fast? What risks do we face by empowering a single word with so much responsibility and so many expectations?
Part II: The 1989 Tree Hugger’s Fantasy
How has corporate America’s notion of sustainability changed in the last 20 years and why?
Part III: Getting It Right
What are the risks we face if business leaders get this wrong and embrace sustainability as a “trend” rather than a sea change.
What exactly does sustainability mean and how has this word taken on so much “responsibility” so fast?
I was falling asleep last night and in a semi-dream state I started seeing the word sustainability floating around in my head. I think I was half asleep, but I remember two visions.
The first was of a giant green word “sustainability” 200 feet tall with leafy font and protruding tree branches. The massive word was crashing through Times Square like Godzilla from the old movies. People were screaming “Loook oouuuutt! It’s everywhere! You can’t escape! Hide your children….it’s…it’s….oh my god it’s sustaaaaaiiiiiiiinnaabilittttyyyyy!!” Yes friends, sustainability had run amuck…it was out of control and had turned on us. The poor, innocent word had become so pervasive in 2007-08 that by 2009 it had been commandeered by so many different interests, institutions and causes attempting to shape, own and profit from it that a horrible mutation occurred a la fill in the blank villain in superhero movies. Sustainability has become a monster…and not only was it not helping to save the planet, it was contributing to its downward slide by distracting us from the real problems we face.
The second dream-vision was also straight out of Hollywood but was more Toy Story or Night at the Museum than Godzilla. As I dozed off to sleep I pictured a couple sitting in a beautiful library reading their books on matching leather chairs, a big old dictionary between them on a wooden pedestal. The couple finishes reading for the night and leaves the room. As the door clicks shut and the light goes off the dictionary begins to glow green and yellow, and the magical fantasy music starts a la Peter Pan. Suddenly the book flies open as if a great wind is blowing through the room and the pages start flapping. Glowing words begin float up from the book and into the room, hovering there playfully like lightning bugs on a hot summer night. After thousands of words have emerged and it seems like they are all out, the words all become very silent and still, and turn their attention back on the dictionary. There is one last word coming out…and as it slowly emerges it becomes clear that this word is different than the rest, this word is special…it is glowing more brightly, it’s font is ten times larger, and it has glitter trails and bright glowing colors that create something of a regal, magical aura.
The word, of course, is “sustainability” and as it passes by the other words they all whisper and watch and buzz, as if sustainability is the most popular kid in school, the king, the big dog. But as the camera zooms in and we get a closer look…as we take out our magnifying glass and examine sustainability up close we find doubt in his eyes, great uncertainty behind his glitter, and deep worry behind his colorful glow. Sustainability, it seems, is full of self doubt and insecurity. He has no idea what to do with all this power and adoration, or even what his own definition really is. But the adoration continues unabated, and even grows into huge projections from all the other words, projections of great expectations, great leadership, and great success. The other words, it seems, are counting on sustainability to save them from something.
I wanted to highlight these dreams — and the deeper points underlying them — as my first blog entry because it is vital that we as business leaders and as citizens come to some fundamental agreement on what sustainability does and does not mean, and how we will and will not use the term. We also need to acknowledge the risk that we could significantly dilute the potency of the word and the cause if we misuse it as the pure, innocent “sustainability” can either become a monster we can’t control or be placed so high on a pedestal that it becomes ineffective and loses its meaning. These are topics we’ll explore in depth here at 2Sustain in the coming months and years. In particular we’ll delve into issues faced by business leaders whose very words and actions will shape the future of the word “sustainability,” and whether we can ever empower the word to the point that it lives up the great expectations we’ve placed on it, whether we can ever make it as potent as the glowing aura and glitter would have us believe it is from a far.
Welcome to 2sustain – a new blog focused on the world of sustainable business, and the people, issues, policies and trends facing 21st century business leaders. We hope you will find our corner of the web informative and valuable.
2sustain is written and maintained by Tim Albinson, a longtime environmental conservationist and current CEO of Aravo Solutions. In addition to our regular editorial entries, in order to help our readers discover and navigate the wealth of thinking and content surrounding the topic of sustainability, we’ve provided links to various sustainability and environmentally focused websites, blogs and news feeds, and will update them on a continual basis. We will also regularly feature guest entries and interviews with leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, and try to keep it lively and fun with multimedia posts such as podcasts, videos, etc.
Now sustainability is a broad term with different meanings to different people. And the “buzz” is going through the roof. This is both a strength (flexibility) and a weakness (dilution). Given the word has become so prevalent and has such immense potential, we’ll kick off our first few entries this and next week with a series of writings on the word itself, how it is being used, and how business leaders can benefit from using it in the right context.
We’re going to take a slightly different approach, applying all this thinking, momentum and awareness with a singular purpose: the realization of positive environmental, labor and social benefits brought about by making businesses more sustainable. However we will never lose sight of the need to drive profitability and make wise business decisions. The belief that sustainability and profitability must go hand-in-hand in order for us to achieve our loftier goals of positive global change – or “Green is Green” as Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE says – will be our guiding principle.
Welcome to the discussion.
We’ve started this blog with a few goals in mind, and now seems like a good time to get them out on the table because we want you to know what to expect when you come visit us. So in no particular order here they are:
- Keep it conversational: no lectures, no preaching, no whining. Just lots of conversational-style writing and commentary about topics we care about and expect that you do too.
- Keep it relevant: we intend to focus on issues most relevant to executives focused on sustainability and corporate social responsibility – the people charged with greening the American corporation and weaving sustainability into their firm’s strategies and cultures.
- Keep it communal: in order to affect real, positive change we need to work together, and thus we hope you will participate in our forum and join us in creating a real community here at 2sustain rather than just another bulletin board.
There are lots of blogs out there focusing on sustainability, conservation, green technology, etc… so why did we decide to start 2sustain? Because we want to directly communicate with the business community, leader-to-leader, to help drive solutions.
I’ve been involved in environmental conservation for over 20 years, and as a business leader I want to understand how your business addresses sustainability issues. The goal is to facilitate conversations among leaders from all industries and geographies, get solutions out on the drawing board, share what has worked and what has failed, and where to go next on our journey. It’s a big, complex problem we face, and one which will only be solved if people truly work together.
So add us to your list of sites to keep up with. Let’s discuss the “issues of the day” and share our approaches to solving them. Drop by for a daily dose of commentary on topics ranging from global warming to corporate social responsibility to living a sustainable lifestyle. We look forward to hearing everyone’s point of view, thoughts and contributions to the discussion.
A recent cover story in the NY Times on the increased demand for lead testing firms is worth reading. Of particular interest is the notion that capacity for testing and monitoring is stretched thin, thus leaving many firms to police their own supply chains, which is no easy task.
In another interview on the same day with Claudia Deutsch of the NY Times, Timberland CEO, Jeffrey B. Swartz discussed the development of industry-wide social, labor and environmental standards for suppliers:
This is fascinating stuff and points to how fast sustainability initiatives are being adopted both on the regulated and voluntary sides.
More to come on this.