“We need to show customers that we aren’t a faceless corporation, we are actually a collection of individuals” said a colleague at a recent meeting. This happened to be in relation to how we can provide ‘value added’ services, but I think it’s an incredibly important sentiment for everyone to remember, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Back in May I attended Edie Live, a major business sustainability exposition, and went to many seminars over the course of the day. I heard people discuss the plastic problem, circular economies, the post-CSR world, engagement, and communication. There were some incredibly impassioned speeches; one woman expressed frustration that small businesses were left out of the energy savings schemes as it was felt they would be a harder sector to tackle. She went on the explain that she was a CEO, employing 15 people and had completely embraced sustainability in the operation of her site. There were some questionable choices; one business decided to switch from dishwasher safe china mugs to recyclable, disposable cups because they thought the dishwasher was running too frequently. There were incredibly engaging discussions; a live podcast about the role of sustainability officers in business revealed one opinion stating that financial teams will be dissolved before sustainability officers become redundant.
One of the most compelling thoughts I walked away with though was this apparent disconnect, where we see businesses as boxes of homogeneity. I think it’s easy to acknowledge that that box must be filled with people, but we tend to forget that they are all individuals capable of making their own decisions. At the end of the day most businesses wouldn’t exist unless individuals made specific decisions.
Why then, do businesses appear to struggle with sustainability solutions?
No one institution or community will be the solution to the sustainability issues our planet faces. Government plays a major role because they have the power to take scientific, evidence-based research and make conscious decisions to ban certain things which are very detrimental. Neither business nor government wants to stifle the economy, because that’s not financially sustainable (sustainability is after all, all-encompassing as indicated by the sustainable development goals). And that means that businesses have to take some responsibility on their own to come up with ways of having sustainable operations while making the business viable. Let’s not forget non-profits. I feel contextually they sit with businesses because they tend to have structure, leadership, and a base of ‘consumers’ as well. Last, but not least, are individuals who also have to play a role. As individuals we make up the government, businesses, and charities.
Frequently, on the sustaino circuit, you hear things like ‘it doesn’t take a few people doing it perfectly, it takes everyone doing it imperfectly’ or ‘if everyone just used one fewer disposable coffee cups a week then it would make a huge difference.’ I take no issue with the sentiment behind these, but they are targeted at individuals as world citizens or consumers. Most people also form a component of a business, and they will be responsible for making a decision, regardless of the size of that decision. That not only gives them the power to make sustainable choices in their personal lives, but also sustainable choices which will increase the sustainability of the business they are a part of.
Of course there are challenges within management systems; Individuals who are aware of how a decision could be made sustainably may not have the power to make that decision, people making the decisions may not see the financial viability of a decision, decisions may have to be made collaboratively and end in disagreement with someone being disappointed, and lastly, but most importantly, the individual responsible for a decision may not know what the sustainable decision would be.
These problems are ultimately solvable. For example, if you consider long term versus short term there are many options which become more financially viable in the long term as long as the company will last. Increasing access to information and funding research itself will help individuals make more sustainable solutions. Taking time to make a decision to think about sustainability holistically rather than based on one area will avoid rash decisions.
Most businesses provide a service and therefore have some power over their consumers. This is used in their marketing methods to gain more customers, but can also be used to sway how their consumers think. If you’re in the business of convincing your customers, then you should absolutely be in the business of convincing your employees and colleagues too. We are all in it together, so please, use your reusable cups, grow your own food, buy an electric car, but also consider what decisions you can make in your job which will improve the sustainability of your business.