In 15 earlier parts of this series, Claire Sommer and I developed 28 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields. (Find them here.)
In a recent and separate three-part series (see here), I provided evidence for the existence of a corporate conscience amongst mainstream companies, a graying of the line between the formerly sharp distinctions between where “the company,” and its traditional self-interest, ends; and where society the world, and the greater good, begin. In the last part of this “Pitfalls” series, I looked at how an “emerging-conscience company” could express that potential transformational shift through metrics. Here I show how such a company could respond in another way: by being aware of, and responsive to, what critics are saying about what they see as the dim possibilities of a corporate conscience, in part through metrics — at least where it’s feasible to do so, as they can be brutal on this subject.
In the “Reader Comments” about a somewhat-similarly themed New York Times article by Frank Bruni, “The Sunny Side of Greed,” a few of the ones to which it would be hard to respond (and not worth it) included calling its author “obtuse,” “a complete idiot,” and “a sell-out,” whereas other charges could be answered either through metrics or with specific arguments. For example:
- “Flimsy,” could be responded to with additional evidence
- Corporations are not people, and therefore cannot be expected to respond as people would, with, for better or worse: The Supreme Court says they have some of the same rights, particularly if they have moral objections, so the issue has been (at least somewhat) settled. Therefore, why not take advantage and explore the upsides of the now-business-relevant moral dimension?
- This adds unwelcome momentum to the de-legitimization of the role of government, by joining an organization such as the American Sustainable Business Coalition, which has said: “Good regulations tend to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship in addition to limiting or preventing destructive forms of economic activity.”
The social area would be a fruitful place from which to choose additional responses, as these are not that common, and some areas could be quite challenging — and therefore potentially impressive to tackle. Socially oriented metrics, or the topics for which metrics would have to be derived, also have a wide scope and perhaps some unfamiliar dimensions that would need to be understood first.
Jules Peck, speaking for the B Team, states: “…we understand that the sustainable business of the future … will ... need to be defined by their ability to ecologically efficiently satisfy our ‘well-being needs...” By well-being, and drawing from the largely ignored sustainable consumption field, he cites “connection to friends,” “being physically active,” “continuing to learn,” and “being engaged.”
In his Jericho Chambers hat, using an interdisciplinary approach with ideas from positive psychology, welfare economics and neuroscience, Peck states: “We’ve developed a process called ‘WellbeingNeedfinding’…[that] helps companies map, measure, manage and maximize the well-being-satisfaction their brands…can provide to customers and society.”
So perhaps a metric for some aspect of well-being is important.
More are: “lobbying expenses” (including whether they are “excessive,” as these “were an Enron trademark), taxes paid” (if “no taxes” were paid, “maybe the company is being too clever”) and “social responsibility” (including whether “a company stock [is] included in a socially responsible mutual fund”).
These are both topical and also likely to be necessary if the sustainable business field is going to achieve its potential, evolve to become the “new business-as-usual,” and not remain such a secret that the mainstream still doesn’t know it exists — or is even possible.
Joss Tantram’s concept of "common self-interest" is the idea that “in a massively interdependent world, respecting and balancing interrelationships should be a defining theme and design criteria for activity — at the heart of company purpose and activity.” He suggests the internal use of such criteria like: “inter-subsidy,” or “how is our [company] quality of life subsidized by other peoples’ quality of life;” and “freedom of choice and opportunity,” or “does our freedom of choice and opportunities depend upon other people lacking their own?” There’s no reason these couldn’t also be for external use.
This is certainly not all that could be said about business and the social side of sustainability. There are any number of other hot or pressing issues (or that deserve to be) not directly expressed above: inequality and CEO-to-average employee salary ratio; lurking supply chain issues; peace-building (where applicable); disaster assistance (when relevant); whether there is a continued relationship with anti-sustainability-supporting trade associations.
Going to the environmental side, Mark Bittman would add for food companies the elimination of the "routine use of antibiotics."
As a meta-metric-in-the-works, a company communication to stakeholders that it is considering its next steps in this area would get across that it recognizes the problems plaguing the world, sees itself as part of the solution, is open to suggestions (of course, it would have to follow through on a reasonable number), and ... just maybe … actually cares.
If this is all too touchy-feely, realize a purely by-the-numbers approach strongly risks becoming merely an exercise to meet what is (or seems to be) a bureaucratic requirement from up high. Even if there is some marginal sustainability value, it would still be a lost opportunity compared to what is actually needed.
Pitfall 29: Critics should not be ignored.
The choice of at least some metrics should speak specifically to some of their concerns, even as the ones chosen may raise a few eyebrows (which isn’t a bad thing and would be an interesting metric in itself).
Perhaps such metrics reporting by a company that responds to some of their critics’ deepest concerns would prompt the latter to rethink their views about the credibility of the former’s conscience.