The manifestations of climate change and other harmful impacts of human activity on the environment have an increasingly direct and negative impact on our lives. It’s no surprise that people today are more eco-conscious than ever.
We choose sustainable tote bags over plastic ones and seek the same in packaging products from brands we support. At home and in the office, we take measures to recycle, minimize waste, and conserve energy.
But on the global stage, the individual consumer is a bit-part player. The lead actors are businesses, operating on a scale that has far greater consequences for the environment. And it’s worrying that even in the face of imminent danger, many businesses continue to take a misguided approach towards sustainability.
Taking positive steps
Statistics are clear about the potential impact of businesses taking more positive steps in this regard. Just a hundred companies account for 71% of global emissions. The Business Determined Contribution of the Paris Climate Agreement accounts for 60% of pledged emissions cuts. Many Americans expect businesses to step up accordingly and use their purchasing power to make their voices heard.
In the modern world, who can really claim a lack of awareness in this regard? Certainly not business leaders. After all, their bottom line stands to benefit significantly from saving the environment.
By practicing sustainability, companies can better earn the loyalty of consumers. They also stand to save costs from wasteful practices while improving their position with regard to looming compliance and regulatory standards. And they stand to become more attractive to current and prospective employees, investors, and shareholders.
Struggling for impact
No matter what company you work for, it’s likely that green practices are being implemented in some form. In fact, they are probably prominently highlighted as evidence of your organization’s willingness to do their part and save the planet.
But what does the data say about the actual effectiveness of such measures? For that matter, where can you obtain such information regarding the impact of your company?
In most organizations, such information is invisible to employees and other stakeholders. Only leaders in the hierarchy are privy to the data. With such a lack of transparency, you can only assume that what’s being done is good enough.
Two major assumptions are being made here. One is that business leaders are actually interested in the overall efficacy of their measures to save the environment instead of simply crunching the numbers relevant to profitability.
The other is that even if data indicates those measures aren’t enough, leaders would then be willing to go the extra mile and do more to help.
Too often, there’s a gap between what businesses need to do to attain real sustainability and what makes sense for them economically. Refusing to address this gap makes it difficult to have any real impact on the big picture. The environment continues to suffer, and society emerges as the real loser as the tragedy of the commons continues.
Aiming for true sustainability
The root of the problem is one of definition. It stems from businesses constantly associating sustainability with improvements to their bottom line or gaining a competitive edge over their peers.
The definition of true sustainability, however, has nothing to do with a company’s business model. It understands the thresholds of economic, environmental, and social resources involved in your operations.
Aggressive consumption of those resources can’t continue. Non-renewable resources, in particular, have to be managed carefully and recycled. We can’t be operating in fear of the idea that someone else will exploit a resource if we don’t get there first.
Failing to pursue true sustainability leads to half-measures and selective changes made in light of what favors the company while damaging the environment. For instance, Coca-Cola is working to improve its water stewardship but continues to manufacture over 100 billion single-use plastic bottles each year.
Sometimes, true sustainability will align with business profits. Often, however, it won’t. How many businesses are willing to embrace that concept and rework their operating models around it? Will your company take such measures? What role can you play in driving such change?
The answer depends on where you sit in an organization’s hierarchy. But one thing every member can do is call for transparency.
Viewing the big picture lets all stakeholders see how effective a company’s measures really are at mitigating its environmental impact relative to critical thresholds. It creates better accountability standards and prevents businesses from virtue signaling through selectively beneficial practices.
Only if businesses are transparent about their sustainability performance can they tackle difficult decisions about the scale and impact of operations with the right mindset. And that’s what it will take to drive real change.