Pope Francis has been creating news in sustainability circles lately and lots of it.
Why? Well, it’s not just because his message of peace, simplicity, and pursuit of the common good resonates with millions the world round, but also because his beliefs are uniform and undivided in ways political, corporate, union or community leaders can seldom afford to be: It is within each of us, he says without preaching or scolding, to be better people, more caring, more generous and, of course, more considerate of the environment.
Underscoring this message of “sustainability” is a selfless humility we can all connect with, a trait that makes his words all the more great and inspiring. Francis invokes universal values transcending faith and politics — dignified work; love of pristine environments; vibrant communities; fair treatment before the law, freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion, amongst others. Many before him — Pope John XXIII, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi — also struck deeply into this wellspring, inciting waves of compassion towards humanity. Great as their inspiration was and continues to be, however, it has not nearly been enough to knock us from our unsustainable path we seem to accept with what Pope Francis suggests is “the globalization of indifference.”
Many people and most companies still confuse sustainability, or lack of it, as a crisis of the environment. Not so. Environmental woes are but symptoms of a material culture deeply out of sync with our universal values. It is the triumph of the superficial, of the fleeting rush of the “buy” over the enduring satisfaction of compassion, solidarity, and simplicity.
We would be wrong to believe that this material affliction is itself superficial. It is not. Our addiction to “stuff” is primeval, a fear of scarcity older than homo sapiens ourselves; to understand, we need only remember it’s been just 80 years or so that more than a small fraction of the world’s population has enjoyed anything but hand-to-mouth existence.
Fear of scarcity is so profound it affects our collective institutions as much as it does our individual actions. In his little-known but excellent book, Corporation Be Good, William C. Kendrick explains why companies can be so destructive. He argues that neuropsychological and anthropological impulses cause us to form organizations — companies, governments and other types of institutions — to improve our individual chance of survival. The scarcity impulses that drive us as individuals combine in companies with entropic force, causing an endless organizational desire to grow, to accumulate, to horde.
Coupled with the legal cover provided by corporate law and devoid of the moral filters guiding individual action, this has led to all manner of corporate behavior we might find reprehensible as individuals.
As consumers, we are similarly detached from the consequences of how the goods we buy are produced and delivered. As long as our desires and needs are met, the “market” is seen as mostly agnostic, even as it wreaks quite obviously havoc on our most strongly held values.
And as Pope Francis contends, market transactions makes no one particularly happy for more than moment or two because the accumulation of things is ultimately a spiritually empty end game. More practically, scarcity need not drive our economy because there are more than enough resources to support the world population at a fairly high standard of living. The Pope, according to Jeffery Sachs, believes what we face is not an economic problem but a “moral crisis.” That is, we can choose what we value and let that value lead us to saner, more sustainable economic outcomes, or not.
Alternatives to a scarcity-based economy are emerging and an economic culture of sustainability, one that generally seeks to ensure material sustenance enough to support the dreams, desires and spiritual needs of all, is gaining ground. The rapidly growing sharing economy, the fair trade economy, local and organic economies, the giving economy, etc are all testament to the potential of moving through fear to universal values.
What is the sustainable culture in practice? It is a choice of greater personal time over more things; preferring experiences to the next must-have gadget, and it’s about caring for others as much as oneself — not just your family, friends, and neighbors, but your communities and the inhabitants of Earth at large. One need look no further than the doctrines of our faith — or to good old common sense, for that matter — to know that what truly motivates and causes lasting happiness is making a difference, connecting with and caring for others, spreading love and passion ... the very things Pope Francis exemplifies, personifies and teaches.
How can that inform business? To start, some corporate sustainability leaders recognize sustainability is not one-dimensional. It’s not just about saving water or giving money away, but about how to connect with stakeholders and clients while saving water or giving donations. But it’s not connecting in the superficial, we-want-your-opinion-on-the-color-of-our-packaging kind, it’s about linking brand to our greater selves, or the people Pope Francis knows we can be.
What It Takes to be an Iconic Sustainable Brand
Some companies are coming to understand this both in theory and practice, and are working to tap the fuller slate of universal sustainability values. Nike,
Unilever and Natura, for example, don’t just want to write the next algorithm for using less materials or better route logistics. They want to involve stakeholders in durable, healthy, never-look-back exponential shared-value creation.
Connections are part of the equation but so too is the need for companies to be true or authentic in all of their interactions with clients and stakeholders. This is important but, again, hardly enough. Truly successful sustainable brands interweave their sustainability accomplishments and aspirations directly into the universal values held by their stakeholders, but particularly final consumers. How does this feel? It is the surging strength and sense of endless potential every time we slip on a pair of Nikes; it is the image of happy Indian children glowing in good health each time Unilever soap suds up your child’s hands; and it is the wild, pulsing beat of an untamed Amazon forest in a man’s heart with every drop of Natura cologne.
The measure of a sustainable brand is simple: The use and ownership of a product is uniform and indivisible from values it represents. Sound familiar? Some smaller companies or brands such as Mountain Equipment Coop and Tom’s of Maine have achieved iconic sustainability status, but no large multinational yet applies, with the possible exception of Natura. Still, these companies have only just begun to tap universal values, but are finding that they offer infinite possibility for growth. For unlike tungsten, tin, water, arable land, etc, there is absolutely no end to how much we can love or feel good about something — less immediately addictive than the dopamine of “the buy” but far more durable and valuable.
Any company can do something sustainable, but iconic sustainability brands do more. In the parlance of business management, they eschew low-impact, low-return sustainability tactics such as saving the most water or making well-intentioned donations in favor of high-impact, high-return strategies that connect with the value-DNA of their stakeholders.
Easy to say, not so easy to do — but then again, good strategy rarely is. And like diamonds, sustainability brand value is not something you find in every gravel pit.
The teachings of Pope Francis imply that lest we aspire to our values, fear will continue catering to the lowest common market denominator, and that will surely be to our ruin. Creating value by connecting to our higher selves, by contrast, is an economic vision His Holiness might approve of, and one that would make us all richer, both spiritually and financially, in the process.