Why I’ve Stopped Pitching the Business Case for Sustainability

One of the most frequent questions that I get when I talk to people about my job as a sustainability consultant is this: How can I convince [my boss, my company, my crazy aunt, etc.] that sustainability makes good business sense?

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that sustainability can drive innovation, save money, improve employee morale, and create competitive advantage. There are oodles of reports, case studies, and company executives proclaiming from the rooftop that sustainability is good for business.

Now, there are a lot of ideas about how to most effectively make the business case for sustainability and why businesses should care. I won’t go into them here. What I want to talk about is why I’ve stopped making the business case.

Yup. I refuse to do it. Here’s why:

It doesn’t work.

Unless you’ve been hiding in under a rock, you can’t have escaped all the press around sustainability success stories. That means when you draw me into a conversation about the business case for sustainability, you probably have an agenda. You want to argue, or debate politics, or just want to be disagreeable.

If you are a sustainability skeptic, chances are there is absolutely no way to convince you that sustainability makes good business sense. In fact, the more evidence I put in front of you, the more you will resist the truth. (This is a brilliant link. Go read it. I’ll wait.)

Frankly, I have enough frustration in my life without engaging in pointless debate. Let me instead politely refer you to any of the hundreds of excellent resources and be on my way.

OK, I can admit that my position may be a little harsh. Certainly not EVERYONE who asks me about the business case is intentionally being an ass. There is occasionally the honest and open-minded inquiry about whether there is a solid business case for an organization’s pursuit of sustainability.

In cases like this, do I change my tune? Instead of booting this person to the curb, do I have a refreshing discussion in which we both walk away better people?

No, I do not.

You see, it’s a waste of my time.

First, there are more than a dozen places I can point you that will do a much more eloquent job of explaining the business case for sustainability than I can. These resources have references, footnotes, and quotations from business icons that will do more to inspire you than anything I can come up with on the spot.

Second, every minute that I spend convincing you that sustainability is something you should take seriously is a minute that I can’t spend helping someone actually figure out how to implement sustainability into their business.

I like to tell people that I work on the how of sustainability, not the why. If you need the why, do a quick search on Google. Read any of Bob Willard’s books. Take an Intro to Sustainability class at your local university. It’s not rocket science, I promise.

What’s more challenging, and therefore more interesting to me, is how to take the broad benefits of sustainability and apply them directly to your organization. That’s where my skills and experience come into play—that’s how I want to spend my time.

I’m not saying that we should forget about the business case for sustainability. I just wish that sustainability experts would just skip ahead to the good stuff. By continually spending time rehashing the same fundamental basics, we are hobbling ourselves.

It’s the same problem as explaining and re-explaining the evidence for man-made climate change (which I’ve written about before). It’s a waste of time—at some point we need to push the doubters to the side and just get on with the business of climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Can we all just agree that—when it comes to the business case for sustainability—the evidence has been presented, a judgment has been rendered, and we can all move on with our lives? There is too much work on our plates to get stalled now.

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter.

11 Responses

  1. elaine cohen

    Hi Jennifer, interesting perspective and I certainly sympathize with the frustrations of having to continuously teach business leaders why sustainability is right. In my small home market in Israel, we spend at least 50% of our time doing just that, ie building the market we serve. Most of my clients abroad are those who already understand the business case, though I have recently started work with a European (global) company, only after having spent many hours and interactions “making the business case”.

    We consultants often live in the world of the obvious. Sustainability should be OBVIOUS. But, regrettably, it’s not… and many CEOs still do not understand why it’s relevant to their business. And I mean CEO’s of large global companies, not smalll two-people outfits. We see our ability to help business leaders understand the why of sustainability as part of our mission as consultants, and this means making the business case in many different ways – sometimes its a hard numbers ROI story, sometimes its about reputation, local competition, sometimes its attracting and retaining employees.Each CEO needs a different hook. It’s easy working on the “how” with those who are already enlightened. But, let’s face it, that’s still a very small percentage of overall business leaders. We should not give up on the rest.

    • Jennifer Woofter

      Thanks for your comment Elaine!

      I should also distinguish between “making the general business case” and making the “specific business case”. Many of my engagements with clients are centered around how sustainability aligns with their goals, stakeholder expectations, and internal resources. So there is a little bit of navigating how to best apply the business case.

      That said, I just can’t spend any more time trying to convince people (CEOs *or* my crazy relatives) that sustainability — in it’s most basic form — makes good business sense. If they don’t get it, nothing that I say is going to convince them.

      One of the original parts of my article that I later cut out was comparing the “business case” articles and reports from 1990s to those from the 2000s. They are virtually the same — they use the same language, result in the same findings, identify the same motivators, etc. So my question is “when is it enough”. When can we stop trying to convince people and just put them aside and work with the people who *are* ready?

      In my experience, the laggards and naysayers are more likely to be convinced (if they are able to be convinced at all) when they see a peer take substantive action towards sustainability, rather than by being prodded by a consultant. Which is why we consultants place such a premium on being about to talk about our client successes — two birds with one stone!

      Finally, I think there is definitely something to geography and culture. And in a place like Israel you may not be encountering the same type of sustainability skeptics as I do in the US, so certainly there is room for reasonable divergences of opinion!!

  2. Anila

    I think the picture at the top of the page sums this discussion perfectly – convincing sustainability sceptics that CSR makes sense is often like banging your head against a brick wall!

    • Jennifer Woofter

      Exactly! And you walk away with a headache while the other person skips along in the sunshine feeling like they’ve “won” the fight. It’s lose-lose.

  3. klem

    About 20 years ago the east coast Canadian Cod fishery collapsed. They had been fishing cod there for 300 years or more and it all came crashing down. Originally they fished cod using hooks, bait and line but after WWII they switched to nets and caught cod by the millions of tons annually. Had they continued to fish using hooks and line, the fishery would still be there today, it would have remained sustainable. The amount of fish caught would have been much less and this reduced supply would have maintained high prices for the fishermen. So there are clear cases for sustainable businesses.

    However, if the cod fishery ever comes back, I can guarentee you that fishermen will be out thre every day using nets, catching cod by the millions of tons every year like the collape never happened.

    • Jennifer Woofter

      Thanks for your comment! I agree — there are SO MANY clear and obvious examples of why sustainability makes good business sense. If you refuse to see it, I can’t help you!

  4. Geoff Gourley

    Great commentary, agree time is short and better spent taking action. Let’s move on and be environmental actionists not just activists. Better to demonstrate successful examples than debate. Results count.

    Keep up the great work.

  5. Jane Garthson

    Many of us who work in organizational ethics reached the same conclusion re “making the business case for ethics” long ago. I mean, if people can watch corporate giants fall over bad ethics and not get it, they aren’t going to read analyses about it.

    Yes, we still work to help individual organizations have a values-based approach to their work, and understand how that can attract and keep the best people as employees, customers, clients and volunteers (I work mostly with nonprofits).

    • Jennifer Woofter

      Agreed! There are dozens of examples here. Evolution, age of the earth, climate change, ethics, etc. There will ALWAYS be skeptics to argue with. At some point we collectively need to move those doubters aside and get down to work.

      Thanks Jane!

  6. Joan Kerr

    In the past two years, a number of corporations invited me to meet with them to assist with the development of sustainability strategies. Why you ask? The Foundation for Building Sustainable Communities (fbsc.org) engages community, and corporations want to be part of it.

    I attended a presentation last Fall, and our speaker was promoting his book for making the business case for sustainability, my personal disappointment was that this is not forward thinking, too much of an economic focus, and too little environmental direction and certainly no social strategy.

    In working with corporations (some privately), we build excitement through CSR, purpose and humanitarianism. The results are astounding. Let’s endeavour to offer assistance, facilitate actions and enjoy the positive outcomes with the companies, the staff and the community.

    Building the case for sustainability is about unseparating (I know it may not be an acceptable word), business and professional life, understanding that our actions impacts us as individuals and our Earth.

    Green regards

  7. garethkane

    I tend to throw this on its head.

    It IS important for business leaders to understand the business case, but pitching it at them will never work – they understand their business environment better than me/you/whoever.

    What I do is ask THEM what the business case is in their sector – you get some really interesting results and they end up pitching the case to themselves. They’re far more likely to listen to their own wisdom than mine!