Following on from my previous two blogs, I wanted to bring together the discussion around global change and sustainability and how businesses can respond. I’ve shared a lot of information in my past two blogs so this post is about helping businesses to move forward in light of the sustainability challenges the world faces.
Population growth is overwhelming. This is a fact we all know. And people are getting wealthier. This presents huge opportunity for businesses to take advantage of in one way or another in a commercial aspect, but it’s not all plain sailing. Sustainability issues are vast; there’s no silver bullet to addressing the world’s problems. So how can organisations do something without risking a negative effect on their bottom line?
From our discussion at the last NP Group Technology Leadership Breakfast, there are a number of key points to answer this question for me:
We need transparency between organisations and consumers of their services and products. Consumers need to know what they are doing in real time which will help drive individual behavioural change. Unless you see a sustainability issue and the impact it has it’s not tangible to you so you ignore it. But that information has to be relevant information (to their segment), which can be difficult to achieve. It’s all about tailored, personalised messaging – something we’re seeing across a variety of industries already. There are different driving forces and motivations behind each segment, and we as business leaders must tap into those drivers and craft relevant and compelling messages to help drive change.
So how do we share this information? One way is through sustainability reports presented in a clear, concise and easy way to understand, another is of course through social media, and finally, possibly the most powerful method, is through TV. Think about David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2. It sparked so much debate on the devastation plastic can cause to sea creatures there has been a huge spike in the amount of attention paid to the issue, and the amount of effort people are putting in to help solve the problem. A real testament to the power of television in the 21st Century.
How do we re-educate a population about sustainability issues? There is a fundamental education issue which needs to be addressed first, then organisations can follow with their reactions. It’s one thing sharing information as mentioned above, but it’s another to completely re-educate an entire population across generations. That’s because not everyone is aware of the negative impact on the world our species is causing. The great devastation that is not immediately visible. As I mentioned before, it’s hard to empathise with something you can’t see or feel, and many sustainability issues are just that.
At the moment, things are happening the other way around. For example, why is the amount of palm oil on the shelves of supermarkets in the UK not flagged to consumers? Personally, I am confident it will come soon, but we will need something to trigger it like Blue Planet 2 for plastics, I believe that something in the next year will do this for Palm Oil.
There is a need to find a way to up-sell the behavioural changes required by individuals to make a positive impact on the worlds sustainability. The changes required are going to limit people in their daily lives and so it needs a positive spin - real thought needs to go into educating and communicating with people in ways which make sense to them. Again, this links into my two previous points. Having the data and transparency is great, but we need to find a way to communicate effectively. And having education strategies in place is great, but how do we get those messages our on-mass in a personalised manner to ensure all are brought on the journey towards a more sustainable works.
I think we need to sell being efficient. It’s a different kind of liberation to what we are used to so it needs to be repositioned. For example, at our recent roundtable one attendee gave the example that he doesn’t have a car but has money in the bank so can unlock a ZipCar quickly whenever he needs it. This is a new kind of liberation and means something to his life. It means flexibility, he can be where he wants when he wants but doesn’t have the responsibility or overhead of owning a car. And it’s better for the environment – a win-win in his eyes. These communications must be in the language of the consumer. It’s not a catch all situation and we can’t be naive to that.
So where does all this leave us as business leaders?
- Don’t lose heart. Every little helps. Keep trying to make your organisation more sustainable
- Do the Easy stuff. So much sustainability work does really create positive reinforcement between People Planet and Profit. We can find much more efficient in what we do, help preserve the planet, and make our people feel great
- Face up to your Big Lies (read my previous blog for more information and examples of Big Lies). You may not face such difficult choices as Paul Polman. But be clear. How far will you go? What in the end do you – for now at least- have to accept? How do you think about that? How do you deal with it internally and externally? Are you a Koch? Are you an Amazon? Are you a Unilever. Don’t kid yourself that you are perfect!
- Think carefully about your external positioning. It’s worked for Amazon but the tide is turning on them. Unilever are still the poster child of sustainability but could they become Humpty Dumpty? Once you know your Big Lie how are you going to deal with it when it comes out?
- How are you going to kill your Big Lie? How do you get to be a really sustainable company?
For me what this all comes down to is that both personal and company level action makes a difference to global sustainability issues and has the potential to build a movement and ultimately political change. We need to think about what type of future we are trying to build and how we get there. Just doing a little bit isn’t going to be enough – we need fundamental business model changes for businesses to really impact the world.
A new era of data transparency between organisations and consumers is needed to drive behavioural change that sticks.
Leaders can’t be imperialistic about their reactions to sustainability issue. We must find ways to put a positive spin on behavioural changes required.
A regulation culture similar to that within banking (or alternatively tax such as shifting from income based to consumption based on the purchased items sustainability impact) is required to enforce society’s expectations of organisations to address their impact on global sustainability.