Has Environmental Sustainability Lost Its Relevance?

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For businesses and other organisations seeking to overcome roadblocks to sustainability over the last few decades, much can be learned from the debates I heard at the recent Harvard Business School (HBS) conference, Understanding and Overcoming Roadblocks to Sustainability.

It was an assembly of a stellar cast of practitioners, management researchers, and business and environmental historians.

As co-organiser of the event with HBS Professor, Amy Edmondson and Swedish business historian, Anki Bergquist, I was thrilled as the participants dove deep into why environmental fundamentals continue to deteriorate sharply despite decades of talk about business and sustainability.

Roadblocks hinder progress 

“What’s the use of a zero-waste and carbon-free island resort in a world headed towards a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius?”

 

Participants eschewed focusing on the handful of win-win cases to explore why attention to environmental sustainability is just plain hard.

Some of the major issues that were identified: the power of vested interests, the alleged short-term nature of capital markets, and the way the human thought process works.

Overcoming roadblocks requires public policies to be much more aligned with creating the right incentives to support long-term commitments and radical shifts at the same time, and business might be the only entity that can effectively lobby to pass such policies.

It’s time to revisit the assumption, one speaker argued, that sustainability can be reconciled with economic growth.

A number of practitioners reported that progress could and was being made in their sectors, despite the challenges.

Many are focusing their energy on addressing short-term biases in capital markets and in the ability of investors to guide and prompt corporate boards to reduce their environmental impact.

In the eco-tourism field, companies are developing advanced methods for both measuring and countering environmental impact.

Solutions are becoming more complex 

However, the more speakers considered the business system as a whole ‒ or even more broadly, what several speakers called Earth Systems ‒ the more challenging and complex the solutions became.

For instance, what’s the use of a zero-waste and carbon-free island resort in a world headed toward a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius?

Management studies itself was seen by some speakers as part of the problem, rather than offering practitioners viable solutions.

Three decades of writers asserting that win-win solutions were possible had made it all seem too easy to achieve results, when it’s not.

Sustainability has become reconciled with success in generating profits, rather than focusing on preventing further deterioration of the natural environment.

Worse, and surprising to many with decades of experience in sustainable business, some members of the new generation seemed to be espousing the ideas this field began with: that eco-efficiency (energy savings, waste reduction, and green design) is a ‘free lunch’ solution and the best path forward.

But are small operational fixes like lighting retrofits meaningful in a climate-changed world, or are they necessary but wildly insufficient?

The very concept of sustainability was critiqued by many speakers as having become a major roadblock.

Partly, this is due to the broadening of the concept since it emerged in the 1980s, but as one practitioner astutely pointed out, “the imprecision of sustainability discourse has led businesses to understand the very definition and metrics of ‘sustainable business’ as a competitive space.”

Three decades of writers asserting that win-win solutions were possible had made it all seem too easy to achieve results, when it’s not.

Speakers called for more rigorous exploration of the choices that needed to be constantly made when progressing towards less environmentally damaging corporate practices, and identified the great limitations of research and data on which to make such choices.

We have no measure of the cost of the extinction of a species, for example.

The continued lack of transparency in corporate reporting, and the lack of hard research on the impact of investing, was noted by speakers.

The system-wide nature of sustainability challenges requires system-wide solutions, and especially new and holistic ways of thinking.

What can businesses do now? 

The identification of sustainability as a system-wide problem raised the question of what individual business leaders could do.

There were calls for a new wave of corporate environmentalism, which would assertively lobby for new environmental policies.

Such a path would move the business community beyond its default tendency to focus on itself, on improved plant operations or carbon footprint reduction, and instead recognize, as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink recently pointed out, the broader role of business in improving society as a whole.

 

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