Thursday, October 27, 2011

The irony of a sustainable outlook - Is sustainability inherently inconsistent with a global market place?

(This post is written for Sara Allen’s Green Bloggers’ Roundtable.)

A few months ago, couple of green bloggers got together online at the request of Sara Allen (The Green) to discuss topics generally and independently hoping that we could all get inspired and contribute to the overall efforts of changing the world.

What can I say, I’m an idealist and have always had high hopes for people. I gladly participated and it was a wonderful experience. At the end of our project the group decided not to let the initiative end. Fast-forward to a few days ago, Sara sent us a second round of questions to get our fingers moving and noggins turning. One of the questions Sara presented was whether sustainability is inherently inconsistent with the global market place.

This question struck me as odd and my first reaction is “it depends.” Then it struck me a second time (I’m thick skulled) – there is more than one way to interpret the question and whether “sustainability is inherently inconsistent with the global market place” depends on how you define sustainability in relation to the global market place.

The disadvantage of this question is that anyone with an agenda of pressing for profit alone, aside from the triple bottom line in business (people, planet, profit), can define sustainability in a way so that it is inconsistent with the global market place. On the flip side of the coin, politicians who wish to remain protectionist (of their corporate contributions) will leverage the ignorance of the 99% and define sustainability in a way that severs sustainability from the global market place – making it inherently inconsistent. (Rick Perry anyone?)

As I’ve said before, the answer depends – on who you are and how do you see human progress in this critical time of a sustainable crisis.

I have no definitive answers to her question, not even an ambiguously philosophical answer at the moment. I looked further at some of the other questions:

1. Do you believe that global days of action, like those we've seen from 350.org and 24 hours of reality, make an impact or affect change?
2. Are you a proponent of bottom up (small actions add up) or top down (corporations and governments need to lead the way) environmental initiatives?
3. What role do CSR campaigns play in the environmental movement?
4. What role does the climate change movement play in the Occupy Wall Street protests?
5. How do you deal with climate change deniers and why are they so passionate about their ideas?

(I left out a few other questions for another day because they are somewhat unrelated to what I intend to say here.)

I hope you see the common theme and what it is that makes me afraid. Let’s examine the questions within the context of inherent inconsistencies:

To those who see one-day global actions, 24 hour realities, as at least beneficial (whatever little efforts counts right?) will define sustainability in the short-term and will soon forget the day after what sustainability is all. Their conscience cleared for the time being, they have done all that they could leaving what remains to be desired for the next year. The few who are converted to act and change their motivation and behaviors towards sustainability will invariably benefit the movement, but the whole idea of 24 hour realities makes the rest of us forget why we do what we do tomorrow – isn’t tomorrow what this is all about? Forgetting means a continuation of acceptance of the current global market system – therefore defining sustainability in segments inherently inconsistent with a long-term strategic focus on People, Planet, and Profit. For the global market that cozies up to this kind of 24 hour action plans, it is no more than lip service coming from the PR department. Good will in the market place means driving profit and sales – still only focused on profit and letting people and the planet fall.

The Sloan Management Review recently pointed out that sustainability is not a high priority for most companies. Although the survey does not address corporate changes towards sustainability fundamentally, it is reasonable to guess that companies have not adopted a new sustainable way of designing their organizational structure and efforts to reflect the triple bottom line. So the 24 hour action plans and lip service is inherently consistent with their profit model, making sustainability inherently inconsistent with the current global market model.

As for the question about bottoms up action vs. top down corporate and government initiatives via environmental and human rights regulations and voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plans: favoring one over the other means neglecting half of the equation. I’d say efforts from both the 99% (masses) and the 1% (corporate leaders and governance) are necessary to turn around our runaway train. Neglecting either means defining the global market place and sustainability efforts to mutually exclude one another. Again, the question divides the topic and sets the context to a limited degree that allow for coercive tactics that further only segmented interest (profit alone, or environmental policies alone). I’ve noticed that our politics are polarized. We can blame this on the demographics but I often fault this on the people who addresses the issues from their polarized views: environmental fundamentalist and corporate profit protectors alike, and yes, this also include those human rights activists who cares nothing for the planet or the great economic engine that makes the world turn.

I believe this polarized mentality drives at the heart of the moment that produces those climate change deniers. You make the judgment for yourself.

As for CSR and the environment question, along with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the green movement, relive my previous longwinded answer: segmentation of the issues and polarizing the topic does nothing for the overall long term sustainability efforts. I’ve called out to the 99% in my previous blog posts to this precise point: WAKE UP – what you do matters, but it is not about going to a protest and chanting some slogans and repeating what others are saying like parrots. The point about OWS and CSR is that corporations ought to be held responsible for their acts that violates the triple bottom line, but consumers – we the 99% - also ought to be held liable for our decisions to continue our support for the short termed green washed PR campaigns.

Slogans from companies and slogans from OWS are two of the same: just slogans reflecting short term madness and ignorance. To really change the world, make a difference, 24 hour actions and protests are no more consistent with either sustainability nor global market place. Either will polarize the conditions and create the context for inconsistencies. If we are to save our planet and our people, everyone must act in one direction – a sustainable direction. Cooperation is the key and we have to find the door first.

In a recent book, Management Reset, Chris Worley and Edward Lawler pointed out that sustainability measures requires more than just corporate management giving lip service. They called for a management reset that starts with a business strategy that is intended to produce positive results in all three areas of sustainability (people, planet, profits). Lawler argued that this “is only likely to occur if the organization’s leadership believes that sustainable performance is critical and that achieving it can only be accomplished with a management approach that focuses on it.” I will add that this will only occur when consumers demands it as a long term viable plan, as opposed to 24 hour actions or only grassroots initiatives.

Wake UP you 100%. This is our planet and our human experience. Stop polarizing the movement and start creating progress. I beg you, this is for the good of all of us.

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