Sustainability is an Evolution, not a Revolution

Carol Singer Neuvelt

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?

About Carol Singer Neuvelt

Carol Singer Neuvelt is Executive Director of NAEM. Her long-term perspective and insights into corporate EHS and sustainability best practices also have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, the Bureau of National Affairs, Environmental Leader, the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health magazine and Sustainable Life Media. She is the former Deputy Director for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Public Liaison, where she managed the agency’s interaction with external stakeholders. Follow her on Twitter at @carol_neuvelt.

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5 Comments
  1. Elizabeth Kujan

    February 3, 2011

    Reverse supply chain is where we’re going to see exciting news in sustainability. Corporations are realizing that solid waste disposal is critical to track. What better way to know where old computers go than to have them handled here in the US? In NJ, Green Vision has been teaching autistic students to dissamble and sort electronic materials. Their recycling standards are as high as they come. Their workers are as dedicated as they come. Sustainability is at its best when it creates green jobs at all levels.

  2. Stephen Evanoff

    February 4, 2011

    Carol:

    This is an excellent thought piece. Thanks. I think the answer to your questions depends on how you define sustainability, as Mark Posson discussed in his recent Green Tie blog.

    Successful corporations and businesses tend to be rigorous in how they select new initiatives and measure success. Sustainability will need to compete for resources with and meet the same exacting standards as all other proposed business initiatives. If a sustainability project will reduce risk and tangibly improve the business in a measurable way, it will gain support. As Michael Porter opines in his recent article on “shared value” in the Harvard Business Review and in interviews he has done on the subject, to take on CSR or sustainability projects that don’t meet the same rigorous criteria as all others amounts to corporate philanthropy, which is well and good, but it’s not Sustainability and it may not be sustainable.

  3. Josie McLean

    February 4, 2011

    I declare myself upfront as one of the aspirationalists. And I offer good rational thinking for my position rather than feel good sentimentality.

    At the heart of your excellent article is the word ‘sustainability’. A word that is not well understood. “Sustainability” is a paradigm of connectedness – of integration. It is a way of being and thinking – it is not an endpoint. Moving from the evolved state of business as it is today – as it has evolved over the last 200 years, and based as it is upon a Newtonian understanding of how the world works, to being sustainable will take a transformation.

    ‘Transformation’ is another poorly understood word. Transformational leadership is about assisting people unveil and assess the continuing usefulness of unconscious assumptions. This is closely related to organisational culture change.

    What it will really take for us to become sustainable is a transformation of our businesses (and society) where we reprioritise our commonly held values and discover some of the assumptions that we have made, which are now proven incorrect.

    Strategies such as resource effciency, pollution reduction etc are necessary (don’t get me wrong, they are necessary) – but are playing at the edges of the old paradigm. They are not sufficient. They are not the paradigm shift. Undertaken without the paradigm shift, they offer the prospect of business very efficiently and cleanly consuming the last of our limited resources. (Refer to the economic concept of ‘rebound’ as well.)

    The prime value of business, within the existing and ruling paradigm, as echoed in the comment by Stephen above is profitability. Within the paradigm of sustainability, I suggest that the key value may be ‘life’ or ‘sustainability’ itself. This does not mean that money is not a part of being sustainable… it is just not the highest value nor the chief criterion in decision making.

    For more about whether playing at the edge of the old paradigm is a ‘step in the right’ direction you might like to visit a blog entry ( http://www.the-partnership.com.au/_blog/Our_Thinking/post/Response_to_'behavour_change_is_at_least_a_step_in_the_right_direction'/ )

    So, when we consider if sustainability initiaves are being successful, we need to chose our indicators wisely, we need to consider where it is that we are trying to get to – and ask ourselves if sustainabiity is really an incremental improvement or a step change (a paradigm shift). If it is the latter… then progress in the old paradigm does not necessaarily mean progress in the new.

    Organisations need a paradigmatic culture change to move from being unsustainable to sustainable. Please feel free to download an article we have written based upon our practice in this area at http://www.the-partnership.com.au/_literature_70143/5_Essentials_for_Org_Change_for_Sustainability

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

    • Beth Berglund

      February 7, 2011

      Agree with Ms. McLean.
      Revolution is too aggressive, evolution is too passive. Business needs to transform.

  4. Rita Holder

    June 9, 2011

    This a great piece of writing.

    I would like to point us to another excellent piece by change/sustainability expert Bruce Nixon, called “Social and Environmental Responsibility: Doing the Right Thing.” (His website is http://www.brucenixon.com)

    Here’s a brief summary of his article:

    Because many global companies have budgets larger than some small countries, their impact on social change can be enormous. Corporate social responsibility prompts corporations to act in three levels of increasing responsibility and ethics: (1) make environmental changes to save money; (2) make environmental changes to reduce the risk of bad press and lawsuits; and (3) make environmental changes because it is the “right thing to do.”

    Here’s a link to the article:

    https://files.me.com/holderr/j722mw

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