SUSTAINABILITY: SOULFUL OR SHAMFUL?

By Rajeev Peshawaria, Contributor

“What’s the business case for ending life on Earth?”

This was the strong counter question Roy Anderson, the late CEO of Interface Inc., had for the few who still question the business case for sustainability.

That our planet is in peril is beyond doubt. Be it the havoc created by climate change, the massive income inequality, or the growing polarization within societies – the challenges are real. Our current way of life is simply not sustainable.

Good News, Bad News. The good news is that more and more individuals and organizations want to be seen doing their bit. They understand that they can no longer be bystanders. The bad news, however, lies in the motivation that brings them into the sustainability arena.

Some come at it with authentic steward leadership — the genuine desire and persistence to create a collective better future. They fully understand what is at stake and are driven by a strong need to create win-win-win growth wherein individuals, shareholders, and society-at-large all thrive together. Others come to the game with little or no understanding but feel compelled to act because of regulatory or market pressure. Many countries are now enforcing stiff regulations for environmental sustainability, for which reporting is mandatory. And younger generations are demanding responsible behavior from business leaders. These young but highly informed consumers are willing to shun products and services that are not environmentally or socially responsible. So, some businesses are responding by showcasing sustainability efforts that are not genuine.

As such, there are five C-Suite personas when it comes to sustainability action:

Five C-Suite Personas Rajeev Peshawaria

Steward Leaders:

•     Fully understand what’s at stake, and strongly believe it is their responsibility to address the threats.

•     Rather than customer or regulatory pressure, they are motivated by their own genuine desire and persistence to create a collective better future.

•     Have figured out how to drive superior shareholder returns by addressing the very challenges that threaten humanity.

Company A, a home décor and clothing company, makes a concentrated effort to take sustainability into consideration in its business strategy. Not only does it ensure its fabrics are sustainably sourced as far as possible, it also sources them locally to create jobs within the community in which it operates. Applying circular economy concepts to its production line, it also minimizes its negative environmental impact.


Concerned Beginners:

•     Have begun to understand the threats and want to do something about them.

•     While continuing to learn more, they initiate some basic steps towards environmentally/socially responsible action.

•     Have not yet figured out how to be environmentally/socially responsible without compromising profit.

Company B, an electronics manufacturer, is making efforts to use recycled raw materials for packaging their products. It is also seeking out opportunities to learn how to further incorporate sustainability into its business practices.


The Blissfully Ignorant:

•     Do not understand the threats, or do not believe it is their job to do something about them (don’t know, don’t care).

•     Do not perceive any pressure from regulators or customers to do the right thing.

•     Mean no harm but take no action whatsoever.

Company C, a paper mill, which continues consuming huge amounts of water in its paper production, makes no effort to recycle water or sustainably source other raw material that it uses, such as wood.


Window Dressers:

•     Do not understand the threats, or do not believe it is their job to do something about them.

•     Worried about customer and/or regulator demands.

•     Take a few steps to showcase some environmentally/socially responsible action which is more form than substance.

Company D, a fast fashion company that uses recycled cotton in its products, ironically encourages mass consumption of low-quality attire which leads to tremendous waste and eats up environmental resources. While it does not actively deceive its customers, it does just enough to look responsible. 


Green Washers:

•     Do not understand the threats, or do not believe it is their job to do something about them.

•     Worried about customer and/or regulator demands.

•     Proactively disinform to show environmentally/socially responsible action when there is none.

Company E, a shoe manufacturer which brands and markets itself as sustainable to increase customer trust, uses middle managers to obtain raw material which is produced in an environmentally unfriendly way so it cannot be traced back to itself.


I am sure you can think of actual examples of each type, so I refrained from naming names above. The key question is: As a business leader, where on the spectrum do you want to be? What do you want your children, and society, to remember you for? If you genuinely care about sustainability, the first step is to adopt a steward leadership agenda.


STEWARD LEADERSHIP

Stewardship is the mindset and practice of creating value by integrating the needs of stakeholders, society, future generations, and the environment.  It is brought to life through steward leadership, which, as mentioned earlier, is the genuine desire and persistence to create a collective better future. Steward leaders enable stewardship using the following three steps:

1.     Add four stewardship values (interdependence, long term view, ownership mentality, and creative resilience) to personal and organizational values.

2.     Based on these values, articulate a stewardship purpose – a purpose that creates a collective better future for a wide variety of stakeholders.

[Together these values and purpose form a personal and/or organizational stewardship compass]

3.     Ensure everything in your personal life as well as within the organization is guided and governed by the stewardship compass.

Stewardship Compass Rajeev Peshawaria

STEWARDSHIP VALUES:

Interdependence: Steward leaders think much bigger than themselves or their shareholders, and fully understand that no individual or organization can succeed or be safe in isolation in today’s highly connected and interdependent world. Even if it were possible to do so, they choose to develop business models that drive profitable growth by pursuing a stewardship agenda. Some choose to address challenges associated with the environment (sustainability), while others may choose societal issues, or both. All of these are forms of stewardship and steward leadership.

Long-term View: Steward leaders realize that driving inclusive win-win-win growth is a marathon rather than a sprint. Therefore, they think long-term, and are willing to forego short-term gains if these quick wins jeopardize long-term sustainable growth.  

Ownership Mentality: Realizing that it is hard work, steward leaders take proactive responsibility to make stewardship happen. For instance, even though environmental degradation is a problem much bigger than what one individual or organization can solve, steward leaders take ownership and do whatever they can to contribute.

Creative Resilience: Finally, steward leaders make learning, reflecting, and having tenacity a habit. They naturally and routinely dig into their own creative resilience to find innovative solutions to wicked problems.

STEWARDSHIP PURPOSE:

Based on the above values, steward leaders adopt a purpose larger than themselves. Because their purpose goes well beyond personal and/or shareholder gains, and because they are so genuinely motivated by the win-win-win idea, steward leaders never give up. This deep dedication to a stewardship purpose attracts other talented people who wish to make a living working for a cause that makes the world a better place. In this way steward leaders attract and develop other steward leaders.

THE SUCCESS FACTOR:

At the end of the day, whether or not steward leaders succeed in creating a collective better future depends on their sincerity of intent. This is where Step 3 comes in. Many organizations (and their bosses) talk the big talk, but do not effectively implement Step 3. Simply printing colorful posters, hiring a chief sustainability officer, and producing glossy sustainability reports will not cut it. Steward leadership requires the relentless application of the compass both in good and difficult times. No leader or company is permanently good or bad at it. If an organization has a bad track record with sustainability, it is always possible to change course towards a more positive direction. The reverse is also true. The key lies with you – the business leader. How far do you want to go, and how genuinely? Begin by determining which persona best describes you and your organization, and what you want to do with it. To succeed, you will need Emotional Integrity more than Emotional Intelligence. For a more detailed description of the practice of Steward Leadership, consider reading:

Stewardship, the Core Compass of Real Leaders, and

Stewardship, the Core Compass of Enduring Organizations


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