SB Brand-Led Culture Change 2024 - Last chance to save, final discount ends April 28th!

Walking the Talk
Is Sustainable Business ‘Complicit,’ a ‘Distraction,’ and ‘Duplicitous’? A Response, Part 2

Schendler is clearly most right in his assertion that sustainable business has not achieved its potential. But I believe it is still possible for the field to become the hero we need more than ever, along with other complementary and synergistic changes from others.

As discussed in Part 1 of this short series, Auden Schendler recently wrote a pretty searing critique of the sustainable business field in Stanford Social Innovation Review (ideally, it is best to read Schendler’s article first before rounding back to this one). I described it there and partially responded. Here, I take it deeper.

The rest of the response

Schendler is clearly most right in his assertion that the sustainable business field has not achieved its potential. There are a lot of reasons, but some are getting missed.

I used decades of very mixed experience trying to accelerate change in the sustainable business field, and similar experiences in other sectors, to reflect — and came to see many unexpected obstacles I call mindset barriers towards business achieving its potential. These are wrong, partial, or obsolete assumptions we hold that affect how we see things — including how we assess potential new opportunities. If our assumptions are invalid, we’re not going to be at our best.

Probably anyone can have these. They are held both within businesses (those self-limiting paradigms mentioned in Part 1), as well as the sustainable business press and trade organizations; and, by those outside the field who could have facilitated their quicker and better evolution. See this article, which is a deposit on my Ph.D. work on the subject.

Defying Online Algorithms with Authentic, Impactful Storytelling

Join us as representatives from BarkleyOKRP lead a thought-provoking discussion with two brands that care deeply about their workers' rights and wellbeing, Tony's Chocolonely and Driscoll's, about how to successfully involve consumers in social-justice issues with authentic storytelling that defies online algorithms — Friday, May 10, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

Those outside the field show some reasons why the slower-than-possible progress is not entirely sustainable business practitioners’ and promoters’ fault. Contrary to the presumption in the Schendler article, practically no one knows the field even exists.

The mainstream media ignores the field (I’ve asked the New York Times many times to cover it, recently ending my subscription more for this reason than any other). But the same is so for government, most academia and environmentalists. I’ve concluded that in a world often intermediated through powerful, peer-reinforced narratives and ideologies, they suffer from not having a political home — not on the left, right or even center. And ideologies don’t change easily.

You can’t come to support what you’ve never heard of. Or, if you have, the field’s claims are automatically categorized as “greenwash” — whether they are or aren’t — with business’ remaining flaws always highlighted. Sustainable business, therefore, must seem to those who do run across it to be an obvious oxymoron, not something you look at seeing potential to help society address its problems.

Finally, at least some of the political changes that Schendler rightly calls on businesses to make seem to be happening — albeit still not scaled and sometimes needing a prod.

I’m talking mostly, but not exclusively, about the Georgia ballot law making it harder to vote, with a number of prominent companies coming out on the ethical side against it. Who would have anticipated seeing at least the early signs of a Republican “War with corporate America?”

I was shocked, however, to note a couple of non-Republican, anti-Georgia Law columnists come out against the support from business. I can’t fully fathom that; except that they might believe that, contrary to both Schendler and me, business should never take a political stand. Another was that some employees of these companies might feel uncomfortable with their employers’ progressive position.

Similarly, regarding Schendler‘s statement that “Biden’s aggressiveness on climate is almost shocking, but he needs support from the business community”— he’s getting some of it!

Sustainable business could — finally — be entering an interesting era! If so, full-scale condemnation or dismissal of it isn’t the right approach.

A new approach to develop the field further

Instead, we should try a nuanced combination of, yes, criticism — targeted to where and to whom it’s deserved; and careful praise and coaching where appropriate, including stating: “You got this right, so good; but you’re still lacking in that. It is important to show progress in that. Have you considered trying X?” And at the same time, improve the other factors synergistic to the field’s development, so there are both internal and external forces working in the same direction.

Further, outside the context of Schendler’s critique, the sustainable business field should be an increasingly formal part of both government’s economic development and climate change plans. Progress there has been even slower.

My vision

Here are a few points from my vision for the sustainable business field, from 2017, when I wrote “On 40 Years Watching the Sustainable Business Field.”

  • We need to try harder to avoid common one-step-forward/half-step-back change patterns.

  • A growing number of consultants and foundations … are telling businesses what the latter may not want to hear. … When I’ve seen them do it, they are not getting hit for it (I was referring mostly to consultants who had evolved to also become critics, some of whom seemed to be flourishing).

  • With learning and revising — and luck — sustainable business can begin to displace ‘conventional’ business with a new business-as-usual.

I believe it is still possible for the field to become the hero we need more than ever, along with other complementary and synergistic changes from others. This includes more regulations — though it is sometimes misunderstood that sustainable business proponents are arguing for deregulation. I can’t see how transformation to a sustainable society can happen without this.

Even Schendler doesn’t rule out the “possibility that business may wake up and finally execute on the promise of the sustainability movement.”

Final recommendation

If it hasn’t already, I hope Sustainable Brands makes this a major continuing theme.

I’d like to thank Michael Labombarda — a colleague at my first post-college job, at which I first glimpsed the-then-unheard-of idea of big business helping to address social and environmental problems — and my wife, Sandy Polsky, for their comments on an earlier version.