Labels can be tricky and distracting things. “Corporate citizenship,” “corporate social responsibility,” “shared value,” “triple bottom line,” “sustainable development,” and “sustainability” are just a few of the terms used by the broad array of professionals nudging business to play a positive role in society.
It may seem a bit tenuous for someone in the full-time employ of an organization called “SustainAbility” to make such a pronouncement, but in keeping with the rose-by-any-other-name-would-smell-as-sweet philosophy, I suggest the discussion about labels be set aside for good and that 2015 be embraced as the year of The Obvious.
It is obvious, for example, that soiling your home—literally the dwelling in which you live, or figuratively the community from which you and others draw water, breathe air, produce food, and go about day-to-day life—with toxic substances that can quickly or slowly kill you is, well, a pretty bad idea.
It is also obvious that treating people poorly—violating their basic human rights, denying them access to education, health care, opportunities to grow and thrive—are also not really good ideas. This has been taught through channels too numerous to count, from organized religions that encourage the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself…) to Kindergarten (Share!).
The list goes on. It is obvious that we are better off eating food that fuels us without sickening us. It is obvious that working in a job that fulfills us is better than working in one that crushes our spirits. It is obvious that we should tax “bads” and incentivize “goods” as Pavan Sukhdev notes in Corporation 2020. It is obvious that while money cannot buy love (see also: the Beatles who had relatively little academic experience when they wrote the song—so obvious was it to them), it actually can buy so much stuff as to create mountains of waste that are a problem to deal with (see also: paragraph three, above).
There is, of course, a risk of over-simplifying. It is true that some of the details in the obviousness of it all are quite complex and not quickly or easily understood, and new knowledge continues to emerge. But organizations, networks, and individuals are increasingly making complex interdisciplinary knowledge sets available in ways that are ever simpler and more accessible.
There is, for example:
- robust “data on the planet’s natural boundaries“;
- an open source tool that articulates how any business can benchmark its progress towards a flourishing future;
- an international network of brands who actively engage in dialogue on the way forward;
- …and even a book that explains and organizes the opportunity of a systems approach to everything based on centuries of scholarly and cultural development.
In other words, there is plenty of information for those who are ready to embrace the obvious in a complex and evolving business environment.
With this more easily accessed information, a company can understand the degree to which it is fulfilling any kind of social purpose, or at least living up to its stated values. If a brand stands for “happiness,” “integrity” or “safety” but in fact the business contributes directly to obesity, or its supply chain depends on unlivable wages and unsafe conditions to be profitable, this contradiction is now knowable and addressable. Ignorance and complexity are simply not viable reasons to deny the obvious.
Many professionals (some might even call themselves “sustainability practitioners”) are well aware of the challenge and are making good use of the resources at hand. Whether they are directly informing strategy, or tucked away in a corporate silo, they are doing yeomen’s work to seed thinking and influence decisions that cut at this obvious need. But they are still an infinitesimally small minority of the thinkers and doers in today’s corporate brain trust, confronting formidable obstacles from within and without.
Companies have an opportunity to meet their real potential: to become organizations that are part of a thriving society within a healthy biosphere. Lack of stakeholder pressure, constrained internal resources, and more time needed to develop the business case—these are not good reasons to continue on an unsustainable path. The opportunities of embracing this great future potential, and the risks associated with not doing so, are obvious.