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Walking the Talk
Hey, Corporate America:
Please Stop Saying, ‘We’ve Always Done Sustainability!’

Because it begs this response: “Really? If you’ve been doing sustainability for decades, why is the planet (and the human race) in the trouble it’s in?” And corporate America doesn’t really have a good answer to that.

Shelton Group has been helping companies articulate their sustainability stories for 15 years now. And I can’t tell you how many times, when meeting a new client, I’ve heard some version of:

“We’ve been doing sustainability since before it was called ‘sustainability!’”

I heard it again recently at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum, but with new words meant to give it more gravitas:

“Sustainability is in our DNA!”

Decoding effective methods of driving consumer behavior change

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Please stop.

Stop — because it short-changes the complexity and depth of the climate situation by making it seem like, if we could just dial up your efforts a little bit, everything would be OK. And because it begs this response: “Really? If you’ve been doing sustainability for decades, why is the planet (and the human race) in the trouble it’s in?” And corporate America doesn’t really have a good answer to that.

Has corporate America done amazing things to move our society forward? Yes! Have many of the companies I encounter done wonderful things for their people, their communities and for the conservation of resources? Yes! I’m a capitalist and have pushed all my chips to the center of the table on business, betting that the power of competition, innovation and quarterly profits will in fact spur all companies to make huge strides in caring for people and the planet in the name of the almighty dollar.

But saying that sustainability is a part of the purpose upon which your company was founded just isn’t true for most companies (save the likes of Patagonia and Seventh Generation — both environmental organizations cleverly disguised as consumer goods companies).

It isn’t true because sustainability is fundamentally about eliminating greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Most companies have only just started measuring and managing GHG emissions in the last 5-10 years — and many haven’t even started. And for the record:

Recycling, recyclable materials and recycled content ≠ sustainability.

Cleaning up parks, planting trees and giving to charity ≠ sustainability.

Being an ethical corporate citizen ≠ sustainability.

All of those actions can be part of an overarching ESG program, and they’re all wonderful things to do. We can tell compelling stories about them that build brand preference and even drive sales. But, alone, they don’t add up to “sustainability.”

You can clean up all the parks you want — you can clean up the oceans, too — but you need to identify how many GHGs those actions will actually eliminate. Are they enough to eliminate all the carbon stemming from your company’s existence? If so, awesome — go shout it from the mountaintops! If not — and that’s what the honest answer will more than likely be, as only one or two pioneering companies have actually done so (or are close) — then, get started on the hard work of eliminating the use of fossil fuels to power your facilities and manufacture and transport your goods.

Once you’re doing that, then and only then you can credibly talk about your efforts on sustainability. And you can say something like:

“We’ve been good stewards of our communities and our air, land and water for decades. And now that we understand our impacts on the climate, we’re working to be good stewards on that front, too.”

Now, that’s something worth bragging about.