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Is Sustainable Business ‘Complicit,’ a ‘Distraction’ and ‘Duplicitous’? A Response, Part 1

It will take many things to address society’s many immense problems. But there’s no reason an elevated sustainable business sector (or better, someday, a sustainable business-centric economy) can’t play a disproportionately positive and critical role.

I’m returning to Sustainable Brands™ after almost four years away from writing for it, and the sustainable business field as a whole. I left the field because both I hadn’t made enough of a difference, and also to go in other directions, including to ponder the failures of other big sustainability projects of which I was a part. Consider this most probably a two-time return visit.

(I use sustainable business, corporate sustainability, and corporate social responsibility synonymously.)

After four decades prodding and challenging the sustainable business field, I moved on — while still keeping my antennae receiving, and introducing the field to areas where it is missing: such as the Green New Deal, green jobs, a “green economy.” This is a hard fight in a different way as those involved are coming from a different place.

I never stopped believing in the field’s potential, and hoped others would continue to build it; though it was never clear whether it would be enough.

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So, call this a quasi-defense of the field, or at least its continued potential, in response to an attack from another former practitioner, Auden Schendler.

Here in Part 1, I describe his new and powerful critique of the sustainable business field, and begin to respond.

In Part 2, I take the partial defense further, and suggest a comprehensive way to encourage its growth.

The critique

Last month, Schendler wrote "The Complicity of Corporate Sustainability" in Stanford Social Innovation Review (ideally, it is best to read Schendler’s article first before rounding back to this one). It’s a major takedown of the sustainable business field, and its comments section is filled with agreers. These include those who have worked in or teach about sustainable business. It is a serious critique and not, for the most part, a weak one.

Certain words are pretty strong: “Complicity,” “with the fossil fuel industry…”; “Distraction,” “from actions…that would actually hurt, actions the fossil fuel industry fears”; and “Open Duplicity” by promising sustainability, but keeping their lobbyists fighting sustainability policy.

He charges that “win-win” solutions have been over-played at the expense of the systemic, justice-oriented and pro-society political actions that are needed, with inattention to power inequities. Whereas, my view is win-wins, with both business and environment and/or society benefitting, were a welcome breakthrough and a very good place to start — but certainly not end. And those gradually opening mindsets could produce multiple opportunities to prod for inclusion of those other needed areas — by no means the only Theory of Change, but a rare one I knew of no one applying.

Part of the response

I disagree with many, not all, points in the article — including the language cited above — or believe it overextends some valid points. In some cases, I question the logic behind a charge.

However, turned around, what Schendler complains about isn’t far from my own vision (which I’ll discuss in Part 2). I just see more progress, and the potential for much more, than he does; or have a different Theory of Change, with more temporary tolerance of business’ inconsistencies. Neither of us is satisfied with the pace of progress.

One reason for my still-somewhat more positive view is that, over the years, I’d noticed a pattern of sustainable business practitioners’ progress as they proceeded from one paradigm to a somewhat better one (e.g. “Pollution Prevention Pays,” with several intervening steps to “Purpose”) — always self-limiting (not that people seemed to realize that) and rarely approaching where it needs to go. When someone would raise an example to try to stretch the thinking, such as an Interface (i.e. me, from the back of the room; although others in recent years), it did not become the automatic new baseline for the field as I once anticipated.

Still, any incremental conceptual progress (and these were not small ones) indirectly indicates another phase is possible — and then another, maybe someday getting closer to Transformation.

At hundreds of sustainable business forums, I never heard sustainable business ever promoted, as Schendler says, as “Business could, through its own operations, drive the solutions to climate change,” or his “presumption that corporations, unrestrained, will save us.” Usually, it was just versions of: “Sustainability will save you money.” Actually, I don’t recall ever hearing any vision at all for sustainable business.

So, you can’t fault something for not living up to a claim which, to my knowledge, was never made.

It was always going to take many things, and still will, to address society’s many immense problems. But there’s no reason an elevated sustainable business sector (or better, someday, a sustainable business-centric economy) can’t play a disproportionately positive and critical role. We need all the help we can get!

It is extreme to blame the sustainable business field for lack of societal progress towards addressing societal needs, and for the continued political power of big oil and money in politics, when there are so many simultaneous other factors. One could instead solely blame any other factor — such as inadequate education, which we usually don’t; or captured government regulation, which we sometimes do.

Schendler also omits success stories, included all over Sustainable Brands. There are still the heavyweights: Interface, Patagonia, Salesforce (whom Schendler does say positive things about), and I assume others by now that could get almost anyone first hearing about them surprised and confused — in a good way. That is, they cannot believe what they’re hearing. For instance, see this about Chobani — especially if you’ve never seen a CEO playing foosball with his employees, some of whom are probably refugees he’s welcomed. When I went to conferences, knowing what was coming from companies such as these, I used to enjoy seeing jaws of first-timers drop.

My guiding epistemological principle is if there are at least two, more if there’s three, exceptions to the general understanding of something — such as “big business is evil” (as is held in some of my other circles); or, if not inherently, “business is forced by the system to act that way” — then, something else is going on, a different reality than the current one I hold. And, if we’re of a social science bent at all, such anomalies should catalyze us to re-examine our views. Look harder for the nuances and consider what they’re telling us.

In other words, what explains those surprisingly positive actions — and can we bottle it?

I’d also like to see more evidence than Schendler provided, preferably directly quoting or paraphrasing the Sustainability MBA graduates of recent years that they have not been successful working from the “Inside.” If so, what do they now think is still doable, and how?

Their former professors need to be looped in and make the necessary adjustments to curriculum, including bringing in interdisciplinary help.

In Part 2, I provide further response to Schendler’s article, including a way to encourage the field’s accelerated development.

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