Maybe it’s time to de-emphasize the use of the word “sustainability”.

April 22 was Earth Day. No doubt you saw too many articles pushing for “green” this and “green” that. The planet is sick and coming to an end. Blah blah blah.

Barking up the wrong tree

The environmentalist’s approach to catalyzing action is now akin to barking up the wrong tree. We shouldn’t be seen as preaching or preachers. We shouldn’t be talking to and writing for each other’s edification. Instead we should be translating Earth Day into action items that matter to legislators, to neighbors, and to business leaders.

Because the truth is our planet does have many vexing challenges, climate change and an alarming lack of environmental stewardship among them. Left unaddressed, these challenges do have the potential to make beachfront property out of eastern Ohio and Western Nevada. The solutions are within our collective reach. Transformative partnerships among the private, public, and civil sectors represent the key to our future.

Transformative partnerships among the private, public, and civil sectors represent the key to our future.

But the public sector is at best disinterested in and at worst a significant roadblock to navigating the difficult choices ahead. The civil sector is more motivated to take action, but lacks the financial resources and the legislative mandate to do so. The private sector has both the resources and virtual mandate to greatly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and transition us to a cleaner, healthier, and more inclusive future. So let’s focus here.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ approach to sustainability

A trend is emerging among senior executives and other business leaders, and it boils down to this: “If you plan to talk to me about sustainability, don’t bother.” C-level executives from several Global Fortune 500 companies who have been in attendance at four of my most recent talks revealed a similar perspective. Yet critical mass attention among private sector leaders is vital to addressing climate change and environmental stewardship, the pursuits of Earth Day.

One way to garner attention among senior leaders is to engage them in talks and interactive presentations at events and conferences (a dying breed, which I’ll address in a separate post).

There is a simple alchemy to landing paid speaking events or opportunities to talk with the C-suite: Be published in a top-tier media outlet and mention the buzzwords “leadership,” “innovation” or “digital.” Indeed, I recently was asked to give a talk to the senior team of a visible business services firm based on an article I wrote on the leadership skills needed for success in the collaborative economy.

Which leads to a thought: To get critical-mass attention on the topic of sustainability, perhaps the time has come to shift strategies in how we talk about sustainability. Maybe we should de-emphasize the use of the word “sustainability” and focus on something larger, like the future of business. This would allow us to talk about the various significant imperatives that are re-shaping the business terrain, working the ethos of sustainability into a broader canvas. Think of it as the “Trojan Horse” strategy of advancing the sustainability agenda.

Maybe we should de-emphasize the use of the word “sustainability” and focus on something larger, like the future of business.

The most effective way forward?

I held a trial run of this approach last month at a talk for SAP on the future of business. The first part of my talk focused on the set of imperatives that are collectively changing the world, using “math” as a cipher term to talk about the vexing collection of environmental and social challenges we face. This then led to a discussion about the shift in the C-suite mandate from appeasing shareholders to appeasing stakeholders.

A corollary part of this discussion is how companies can equip social entrepreneurs to launch new businesses that both move the companies’ sustainability agendas forward and raise the standard of living in emerging countries. After five minutes on this topic, I moved to the next section of my talk: what the future of business looks like.

Afterward, six C-suite executives sought me out to talk about “the math problem” in the context of their innovation and growth challenges. In essence, I positioned sustainability as an integral part of the puzzle rather than a panacea for the world’s ills.

Admittedly I’m torn about this approach. On the one hand, several companies want to run half-day white-boarding sessions with me on that “math problem.” On the other hand, I feel like I encouraged these executives’ desire to focus on non-sustainability related challenges — akin to giving the captain permission to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic to complete the day’s work.

What do you think about this issue? Is it time to shift tactics on how we catalyze sustainability attention and action? And what are you finding that is working in your organizations?
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Eric Lowitt is the Managing Director of Nexus Global Advisors and the author of The Collaboration Economy and The Future of Value. You can follow Eric on twitter: @ericlowitt

  • Suzanna

    First let me say that you had me at the picture of a Feist
    treeing a squirrel! I’ve got a Feist and that’s exactly what they’re bred to do. Oddly, that’s a good lead in to answer your question. Because business leaders are bred to make money, and whatever you’re trying to convince them is a good business practice better positively affect the bottom line.
    “Sustainability” is one of those words like “global warming” that immediately gets a defensive reaction. If the “buzzword” had been “climate change” from the beginning, it would have gotten a much better reaction. Any fool who goes outside once a week can tell you that the climate is changing. Everyone would have been in agreement from the beginning. Instead, we’ve spent years debating
    if the world is actually “warming” and whose fault it is. Wasted time and effort that could have easily been avoided if the issue had been an “uh oh – things are changing and we better adapt” conversation instead of “you bad people are doing bad things” finger-pointing
    exercise. “Sustainability” is no different. It immediately says “You’re doing something wrong – unethical – and you need to prove to the world that you’re changing no matter how much it costs you.” We’ve wasted a lot of years fighting that battle.
    Truth is, the word “sustainable” really means – do you want to stay in (sustain your) business, or do you want to go the way of the dinosaurs? Easy answer there. And IF a company wants to maintain a profitable business well into the future they need to think about the financial burden that operating “like grandpa did” is going to place on that precious bottom line. IF you don’t utilize (limited) resources wisely, IF you don’t streamline your processes, IF you don’t treat both the planet and your people “as you would have them do unto you” – you better make darn sure you’ve got a nice bit of cash tucked away somewhere to live on, because buddy, you aren’t going to make it (sustain) 10 more years. Get with the program. Live in the modern world.
    Start small and “engage from within.” Don’t “shove” sustainable practices (scorecards) down your employees throats – reward them for turning off the lights and electronics at night (watch the electric bill go down significantly) – incentivize them to innovate in streamlining processes (lower operational costs = higher profit margins) – celebrate “sustainability” victories with everyone in the company, even if it’s only a family picnic with hamburgers,
    pony rides for the kids and a banner that says “you turned off the lights and that paid for this picnic” (an educational element). Voila! The business is running more smoothly, spending less money, has motivated employees who are “in it to win it” and “sustainable” is now a smart business practice.
    Jargon is just that – Jargon. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” – the swing of profitability. If you speak to people in their native tongue, you’re much more likely to get the type of reaction you’re seeking.