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.