My children are wonderfully obsessed by Albert Einstein and, in particular, his amazing array of inventions. “How could he have known about helicopters?” they squeak in delight to which I answer “Because he was happy to be different”. Of course this suits me as I encourage them, at an age when there is huge peer pressure to conform, not to follow the crowd and to feel comfortable in being themselves. However, it also has resonance in how organisations address their sustainability issues.
“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” – Albert Einstein
In today’s sustainability world many companies and practitioners spend time highlighting good and best practice and then aligning their activities with these. Of course this has tremendous value as organisations build capacity, lay the foundations and play catch-up, particularly those starting from a low base. However, on the downside, it can herd organisations towards a particular type of narrative, often using language which can be simultaneously safe, expert and alienating to those not in the know. This is a huge shame because the language should be enthralling, exciting and full of optimism about a new future.
In this context, I am often asked, “what should I do if I want my sustainability programme to stand out?”. Clearly this depends on many things, not least context. However, when I evaluate an organisation’s programme two points come to mind:
- Authenticity and humility
I think authenticity requires little introduction. Organisations must avoid greenwashing, overstatement and using eco-bling to distract from a lack of meaningful activity. However, when layered with humility, where organisations report both their successes and failures, authenticity can be especially powerful.
Successes are of course wonderful, they generate momentum and can stimulate innovation and me-too follow on actions. However, a willingness to admit where performance has not met target tells me that the targets have real ambition and that the organisation is willing to learn. After all, another lesson I share with my children is that failures are the catalyst of learning. So to quote J.K Rowling (they love Harry Potter too!):
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
I give a big tick to those companies who take a little risk, aim a little (or a lot) high and then chart the progress on their journey with utter transparency.
- Being near and far
One thing that makes me chuckle is when businesses talk about “business as usual”. Can business ever be business as usual? The travails of Polaroid and your friendly London black cabbie show just how quickly events can move.
Indeed, look no further than the impact of Brexit on the UK’s political, social, economic and even territorial landscape. However, whilst Brexit has been thoroughly disruptive it pales in significance to the scale of the impact that the new energy, sustainability and climate change landscape may bring.
Whilst many businesses in the UK fret about changes to the energy business tax landscape, how many businesses are prepared for a different energy landscape (note the subtle exclusion of the words “efficiency” and “tax”)?
The term disruption is often overused by entrepreneurs seeking to state their case for investment, however, “creative destructionism”, a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter, has been at the core of economic development since time began. Entrepreneurs and technologies actively create disequilibrium and highlight new profit opportunities that did not previously exist. With everything we know about climate change and its impacts, surely the time has come for the whole business sustainability and energy landscape to be remodelled.
Every executive worth their salt should have one eye on the present and the other scanning the horizon preparing for tomorrow’s risks and opportunities.
So when I evaluate winning sustainability programmes it is this that I also look for. Are they thinking beyond kWhs of energy usage in their operations to the risks and opportunities of tomorrow? Do they have a radar scanning the horizon ready to evaluate their exposure to disruptive change? Does their sustainability programme emphasise this and is it really anchored with a proper business case and a focus on generating real differentiation beyond just reputational value.
Find out more about the steps towards intelligent sustainability in our next blog – How do I futureproof my business so it has sustainable, long-term value?
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