As it is with the beginning of any cultural movement, the conversation about sustainability has been largely driven by the “aspirationalists,” who have sold the big idea through thought pieces, green marketing and plenty of green business symposia.
To hear this version of the story, it would seem that the green economy is upon us and that companies are funding sustainability like never before. Although I personally believe that we are reaching a cultural “tipping point,” the less exciting truth is that there is a long road ahead.
Last year’s survey of CEOs by McKinsey & Co. and Deloitte Consulting is a good reminder of this, as Steven Ramsey pointed out at the 2010 Forum. While the majority of CEOs surveyed for the study said sustainability was important to building corporate reputation, less than one-third said it was integrated into their company’s core business practices. So while the notion of sustainability may be gaining buzz, there is still a great deal of internal momentum necessary for transformational change to occur.
What I do know from watching our members lead change within their companies over the past two decades is that environmental, health and safety (EHS) leaders have earned a seat at the C-level management table. Having moved from project execution to program management, they are demonstrating the strategic value of their work to an organization’s broader aspirations.
Yet even in this first-generation of sustainable companies, the approach has been more of an evolution than a revolution.
In most cases, companies have looked within their current systems to identify those initiatives that contribute to sustainability. In our 2009 survey of the NAEM’s corporate members, for example, we found traditional EHS priorities, including waste reduction and pollution prevention, energy (climate risk) management, worker health and safety initiatives were for the first time identified as sustainability programs. While this may not seem newsworthy, the effort to take a fresh look at business management processes through the lens of sustainability was a real shift.
In a 24-7 news cycle, the appetite for information is insatiable. Real process change, however, does not always lend itself to a press release. It’s important to keep people inspired by the possibilities, but substantive improvements require incremental steps and often take several rounds before results are worth talking about. It may not be what the aspirationalists expect, but it’s a more accurate reflection of what’s going on.
The current business ecosystem has taken 200 years to evolve and our awareness of sustainability as a business management concept is just beginning. Responsible companies want to make this change, but they also need time to define what it means for their business, understand what goes into it and communicate accurately about it.
What do you think about how well sustainability has been adopted within companies? Is there a disconnect between the progress you hear about in the news and what you see day-to-day?