I was recently at a event in London where I had the opportunity to see a number of presentations from high profile business on the subject of sustainability. One after another the presenters all put forward an image of altruistic, “do-goodery”. The message essentially one of, “we do this because it’s the ethical thing, the ‘right’ thing, because we are good guys”. Now although I think it’s important to capitalise on any positive CSR activity, and many companies don’t get enough exposure for the positive things they do, I have a big problem with this message.
For the vast majority of people (who are not sustainability professionals), “sustainability” is seen as a luxury. It’s all very well if you can afford it, but revenue, profit and reducing business costs are incompatible with responsible operating. Of course this is nonsense. We don’t “do sustainability” because we are selfless good guys, we strive to be sustainable so as not to destroy the conditions we need to thrive as a company. Sustainability is self-serving, it’s pragmatic – simply good prudent business.
However until this reality is better understood by everyone, we will continue to see poor decisions made for near term gain that end up costing way more than was bargained for. The recent scandal at Volkswagen is just another reminder, in a long line of reminders, that shows when responsible standards give way, ostensibly in the pursuit of greater profit, value is in fact destroyed as a result.
So next time you or your company have a chance to talk about your social or environmental good deeds, lets hear a bit more about what was in it for you. Your example will be a lot easier for others to follow.