Leading Sustainable Organizations
Sustainability — it is on almost every corporate manager’s mind, but few are putting their thoughts into action. These are one of the key findings of the recent MIT SMR/BCG annual report Sustainability’s Next Frontier.
This situation hasn’t changed much over many years — the main difference being that, 20 years ago, the very idea of sustainability was foreign to many firms. Most had established safety, health, and environment departments (SHE) to handle growing pressures to take care of the environment and the health of their employees (at least while on the job).
The context changed in 1987 with the publication of the UNCED report (Brundtland report) that both defined sustainable development and placed it squarely in the public eye. The first Rio Environmental Summit in 1992 made it a priority in the corporate sector, with the newly formed World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) leading the way.
Early corporate efforts built most of their sustainability efforts (the development half became tacit over the years) around eco-efficiency — that is, providing equal or greater value but with less environmental impact. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) got added along the way. New composite metrics emerged, with John Elkington’s triple bottom line (TBL) as the model.
Lurking beneath firms’ commitments and resources to sustainability was an assumption that the world would become sustainable as more and more firms reduced their relative burdens. The problem with this idea is that while a company’s increase in eco-efficiency is measured by comparing current burdens to past burdens, the deteriorating state of the world comes from the total global burden — that is, the burden of all past plus all present activities.
Using less fuel or producing less waste today does not, unfortunately, erase the products of last year’s less-efficient practices; nor does it make up for the increase in output that, efficiencies notwithstanding, must accompany a company’s expansion. The WBCSD had overlooked or ignored the limitations of relying on efficiency improvements to reduce ecological destruction.