Sustainable confusion

“Language gets in the way,” lamented a participant at a meeting of corporate EHS and sustainability officers. We had eagerly awaited insight from an annual survey that would tell us how CEOs’ views on sustainability have changed.  We were disappointed. In the prior years’ studies, we were told, participating CEOs had interpreted “sustainability” as “sustained growth”, rather than any of the broader issues we focus on.  As so often with sustainability, language had confused rather than clarified.

That “sustainable confusion” plagues well-intentioned efforts in many companies.  It is the growing gap between a sense of urgency to do something about sustainability and clarity around what it makes sense to do. Business leaders attempt to understand how sustainability affects their business, only to drown in a sea of terms and definitions.

For some, words and phrases like sustainability, sustainable development, sustainable business, global citizenship or corporate social responsibility are highly specific terms with distinct meanings.  For many, though, it’s mind-numbing gibberish.  (It hasn’t helped that sustainability has also become a branding issue. Companies, NGOs — and yes, even consultants — attempt to force-fit their issues into existing definitions or use different terms and definitions to differentiate their approach from others.)

The irony is that, beneath all the definitional mayhem, we are increasingly clear about the basics of sustainability for business. We know that sustainability:

  • Involves taking responsibility for environmental, social and economic impacts;
  • Means extending out the time range of impacts you consider, and bringing forward your responsibility to act on those impacts;
  • Reflects growing expectations on business to address these impacts (as skepticism grows about government’s ability to do so);
  • Includes both a business’ own operations and its offerings to its customers, not one or the other;
  • Requires fitting these issues into your business, not bolting sustainability on as an after-thought;
  • And is a journey more than a destination.

But somehow the language keeps getting in the way.

There is a path toward sustainable clarity.  It’s around getting the substance right first, and only then worrying about the wording.

Late last year, a client wanted to update their sustainability strategy including a definition of sustainability.  For months, the client struggled to come up with a definition that would make sense to everyone from their Board of Directors to work crews on the ground. Meeting after meeting, the definition refused to be wrestled to the ground.  Each version prompted dozens of more edits. Each added word reduced the clarity of the definition.

Then the client decided to put the definition aside and focus on what was important for their business.  Suddenly, once the strategy was clear, the definition fell into place.  The client team knew what they were talking about.  They turned that substance into a few clear, credible and compelling sentences.  When they took their strategy to their C-suite earlier this month, they only needed two pages.  The first was their definition of sustainability at their company and the proposed strategy, distilled down to a single page of text.  The second page was a single PowerPoint slide (yes, slide, not deck) to show how the strategy meshed with some complex organizational roles and responsibilities.  They won approval from the C-suite on the spot.  Now the team is working on actions rather than definitions.

Substance drove language, not the other way around.   That’s sustainable clarity.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]

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