Posts Tagged ‘Business


Sustainability v. Sustainability

I’ve done some work with a big tech company, most recently surrounding the topic of “sustainability” and “green”, two concepts so muddled by pop culture and marketing as to mean roughly…nothing. Anyhow, I’ve found it fascinating how the same term, in the same organization, can represent and reconcile seeming opposites. For example, from the grassroots level, a call for corporate social responsbility (CSR) represents a truly legitimate cause. Employees are holding serious discusssions on topics ranging from cafeteria materials and recycling to technological tools to replace (or at least reduce) worldwide travel.

Sustainability at this level focuses mainly on one of the fundamental tenets of Sustainable Development, generally defined as: “Meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”, and encompassing Environmental, Economic, and Social responsibility.   So, at the grassroots level, environmental issues appear to be the sole interest in the way of “sustainability”

Where it gets interesting though is at the level of decision-making, especially in CFO type positions. Sustainability becomes analagous to viability – economic viability. Generally ignoring environmental concerns, or at least treating them as a (welcome) bi-product of economic viability,  as a value in and of themslelves. To be sure, the global warming scare and subsequent marketability of “sustainable” products and services have shifted markets – but numbers, not trees, are the motive.

On one hand, you can’t really blame these senior-level decision makers. Their job is to sustain the business, not the environment. That argument can certainly be made, and the generation in power is simply lacking an intrinsic knack for sustainability that subsequent generations have. Environmental sustainabilty, at this level, means a couple of different things.

1. Internal: Some of these companies can make huuuuuge differences in the level of carbon emissions, etc. by curbing their consumption. Again, at the level of the average worker, the push for compact flourescents in the offices, for example, is environment related. The acceptance of that push at the upper-level is money related – We can save x amount of money by making the switch.

2. Products / Marketing: optimizing energy use for products is a real response to market demand I think. Companies are marketing the hell out of their “green” credentials, showing a serious trend in consumer demand. There is definitely no shift in the interest of businesses, they are simply responding to the market – business as usual. Anything internet related can be green. A phone is green – you don’t have to travel. Video-conferencing is green. Working from home is green, etc. But these trends pre-date the green phase, only the marketing has changed.

Interestingly, at neither the lower, or upper level does discussion of social justice exist (to my knowledge). Sure, large companies are doing a ton in the way of philanthropy – mostly indirectly – though they don’t involve those endeavors in discussions of sustainability. It seems that the ambiguously famous concept of “green” is able to exist in space so gray as to appease all parties. The disconnection between the grassroots, environmentally aware employee base and the economic interests of those above them provides enough space to house seemingly irreconcilable concepts – one cannot exist without the other. This is an interesting phenomenon, the outplay of Sustainable Development and the introduction of this “green” buzzword. Unfortunately, I think both parties are equally flawed. SD invovles all three tenets – none without the other.