Years before the surprising examples of bold sustainable business actions discussed in Part 1, we had the writings of Jem Bendell, Wayne Visser, John Elkington and Jeffrey Hollender, who have long seen the limitations of constrained corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the need to go much further. But for a long time we did not have much more than the now, at least, somewhat known — although still jaw-dropping — examples of Interface and Patagonia. Interface spoke the language of deep environmentalism (while breaking a number of still-prescribed sustainable business maxims), aiming for zero emissions and beyond. Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign is still a head-scratcher, as it brought sustainable consumption field to the mainstream smack in a full page New York Times advertisement. These were breeches in the sustainable business field’s versions of a “law of physics.” But while the power of these precedents was generally ignored at sustainable business conferences, and by consultants, environmentalists, the mainstream media, and government, they at least showed what is possible.
Now, though, we have more evidence for an emerging conscience and a shift in the fundamental role of business in the activities of a number of groups:
- Net Impact, an organization of college students who see business as a way to “tackle the world’s toughest social and environmental problems”
- The B Team, a collaboration, developed by prominent businesspeople Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz, “to drive transformational change in the business sector.” Zeitz states: “It was no longer acceptable that the corporate sector takes a back seat while the world goes to rack and ruin …”
- The Flourish Prizes for Business as an Agent of World Benefit to be issued by Case Western Reserve’s Fowler Center, which aims to “elevate business as a potential catalyst…” and “…move the world to the point where [this role] becomes the norm.” It will link Prizes to the United Nations’ 17 new Sustainable Development Goals, including ending poverty, lifelong learning, peace and security, justice, inequality, human dignity, and sustainable consumption
- The Business Alliance for the Future, which sees “business [as] the key to global transformation and the structure for creating a better world,” and sees its role as “exponentially accelerating the emerging Business For Good” movement by “creating a tipping point where sustainable business practices are mainstreamed and become the only acceptable way of doing business”
- Academic programs such as Bard’s MBA that define a sustainable company as having “a central mission: to help solve the critical social and environmental problems of the 21st century”
- A new genre of sustainable business books, such as Christine Bader’s The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil and Tim Mohin’s Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Tree-Hugger's Guide to Working in Corporations, which besides yanking pejorative words out of the closet (Bader states: “I am a corporate idealist”), show life for changemakers within a company. Bader says: “I have seen the best and worst of what companies can do — and still believe that business can be a force for good.”
- Movement in the critically important biodiversity area, which not long ago seemed unapproachable from a sustainable business perspective, and rarely came up at conferences, as it seemed a poor fit for the earlier pure and simple eco-efficiency paradigm. Margaret O’Gorman writes: “[Wildlife Habitat Council] partners are implementing over 380 products focused on invasive species (a problem high on environmentalists priority lists),” including “a sentinel site program — an early-warning network alerting scientists to the spread of invasive species into new regions,” and “through restoration of native habitat [companies] can provide employees and community members with an image of what a healthy system looks like…”
- Consulting firms such as Forum for the Future, that believe “it's critical to reimagine and transform the key systems we all use and rely on, and innovate for long-term success;” and whose #theBIGshift initiative uses systems thinking because “we need a big shift in society — when we say ‘big,’ we mean really, really big — not just some improved products and services, and tweaks around the edges of business models, but whole new ways of thinking and operating”
- A survey of New Jersey businesses’ sustainability practices by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise and “PublicMind” also asked about respondents’ motivations for sustainability actions, and found, very surprisingly, the top one was their “belief that it was the right thing to do for society.” The fourth most important “enabling organizational condition that most strongly explained the extent of sustainability practices” were “deeply held company sustainability values.”
That Kuhn anomaly detector that warns of cracks in our commonly accepted views should be switched to “Vibrate” as it’s beginning to get louder.
So what do we make of this still murky, if accumulating, evidence that within some businesses and sectors a conscience might be emerging, despite the still-bad actors, inertia, residual power of the old Friedmanian ideology (“There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game…”), and a long, long way to go?
Could business ever be accepted as a major player in an intergenerational societal covenant that expands the scope and depth of its efforts to pursue a better society and world for our children and grandchildren, their children and grandchildren, the other guy’s children and grandchildren, and the critters with whom we share this place? Is that vision so far-fetched?
Even if the answer to this question is “No charges are contemplated at this time,” is gaming the system the best way? Recognizing the viral power of cats for a triple metaphor, perhaps we should name that stray cat, adopt it, and let it out of the bag.
In the next, and final, part, we will distinguish more clearly between what we are talking about when we invoke a mainstream conscience versus what we’re not, but speculate that as things evolve, the distinctions made now will lose much of their significance as categories mush together. And that would be a good thing.