Let's be honest: real sustainability may not make business sense
Considerations such as 'what do you really care about' and 'who do you serve' should be drivers of sustainability, not profit.
If we want to make significant steps towards sustainability, we need to appeal to the real motives behind choices. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Wouldn't it be nice if the best business decision were aligned with the best ecological decision? Some people say that often it already is, and that if corporations would only wake up and see it, the opposition between profit and planet would diminish.
The business case for sustainability draws on several core arguments. Pro-environmental practices create positive brand associations among consumers, politicians, and regulators. They also anticipate regulatory trends and position the company favourably when such policies become law. The mentality that seeks to further efficiency in materials and waste carries over into other realms. Similarly, the innovation required to overcome environmental challenges promotes innovation generally. And employees have higher morale when they believe in what their company is doing.
These considerations support the idea that the three items of the famous "triple bottom line" – people, profit, and planet – bear no inherent contradiction.
Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the interests of profit blatantly conflict with the interests of people and planet, at least according to any reasonable calculation. What would happen to your company's bottom line if it switched over to a green electricity supplier at twice the cost? What would happen if it insisted on using only fair trade products – throughout the supply chain? We're not talking about cosmetic changes like recycled paper in the copiers or bike racks in the parking lot.
By appealing to the business case for sustainability, we limit green practices to the very narrow subset that involve little cost, little risk, and little disruption to business as usual. Such arguments also have a further, pernicious effect: they imply that the right basis for making ecologically-sensitive decisions is according to what makes business sense. By saying, "Go green because you'll make more profit," they affirm that profit is the right motive.
Let's take it to a personal level. What if I said to you, "Live your life in service to the planet, because you'll make more money that way" and then pointed to the handful of remunerative jobs in the environmental sector? I would be fostering a delusion, because in general, there is more to be made in, for example, cutting down forests and building strip malls than there is to be made in protecting forests from development. I would also be implying, "You should make decisions based on financial advantage." I don't think these arguments are going to turn many people toward environmental work.
Likewise, few companies are going to adopt significant environmental ethics based on profit-driven reasons.
Of course, many people – and even some companies – do make significant steps toward sustainability. If we want more to do the same, we need to appeal to the real motives behind such choices. The real motives are obvious: love, care, and the desire to serve.
Let's stop pretending. If your company is going to make a significant step toward sustainability, it probably won't make business sense, at least not in any way that can be predicted or quantified. You will have to trust something other than the numbers. On the personal level it is the same.
When we take a step deeper into service, fear usually comes up, uncertainty, and a moment of self-definition. Who am I and what do I serve? Whether inside or outside the business world, the same questions arise.
In fact, the "business case for sustainability" does hint at something true. When we take a step into service, the world eventually reciprocates our generosity, albeit in a form and timing that is impossible to predict. A business "case" involves numbers and predictions, but the general principle that it is trying to convey is that the gift moves in a circle. As you do unto the world, so, in some form, will be done unto you.
Ordinarily such principles fall into the realm of spirituality or religion, separate from and opposed to the world of commerce. It is time for this separation to end. Everyone, even the most jaded corporate executive, yearns for it on some level, yearns to align his productive life with his deepest care. This doesn't mean to ignore business realities and throw caution to the wind. It means to take the next, slightly scary, slightly outrageous, next step. It is the step for which there is no credible "business case." It comes from a different motive.
To take this next step always requires at least a little courage, because it goes against familiar practice and predictable financial self-interest. Someday, hopefully soon, we must change the business environment to end the opposition between profit and ecological well-being. Green taxes (shifting taxation away from sales and income onto pollution and resource extraction) and laws against ecocide promote the alignment of ecology and money, but we will never be able to rely wholly on self-interest as a way to enact love. There will always be a next step that doesn't make sense by the numbers.
Herein lies a very different sort of "business case" for sustainability. It comes from questions like, "Who are you, really?" "What do you care about?" and, "What do you serve?" From a deep consideration of such questions, courage is born.
The other business case, the one based on profit, is just a tactical device, a way to give the bean counters – and our own internal bean counter – permission to say yes to what we all really want. Is it naïve to think there is anything beyond PR and greenwashing in corporate sustainability statements? Perhaps it is: but no more naïve than thinking anybody will forsake measurable self-interest in favour of service to our beautiful world