Sustainability an “inane fad”? Let’s ride the wave!

Posted on July 15, 2007

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Bob Jones describes green building as an “inanity” (stuff.co.nz).

“I’m picking this to last about four years with the private sector and a decade with the government,”

Jones’ argument goes like this:

Government’s new aim to reduce the carbon footprint of its departments, installing power and water-saving devices along with other environmentally sound initiatives…But power and water shortages were not a problem for New Zealand…

This is where they are making a bigger mistake, by fixing a problem that is not there.

Rather than picking holes in his arguments (OK, just one, around 60% of NZ’s power is renewable – the rest contributes to climate change). Rather than picking holes in his arguments, what can we take from this?

1. People get upset if they feel that sustainability messages are being forced on them – especially if they are behaving as we wish them to anyway:

We don’t buy buildings unless they are on a northern corner, for the natural light. But it’s not to bloody save energy. It’s because it feels good” he said.

2. People (powerful people at that) think that sustainability is a fad that will be gone in four years. While Jones (being a property developer) is concerned with buildings, we can extrapolate his arguments to computing or wider. Is sustainability in computing something that has only got a couple of years to run? It is probable that the word sustainability will have gone out of fashion in four years. The current green stamp on most marketing will surely have lost its impression in a couple of years. Maybe Jones is right!

In “Is Green the New Black?” Ted Zorn and Eva Collins ask whether is sustainability is “merely a fashion”, with connotations of

frivolousness, an emphasis on aesthetics (particularly superficial or surface aesthetics), a concern with image over substance, emotive or non-rational decision making, short term or temporary changes.

They contrast this with alternative views of change: best practice; industry standards; and management knowledge. By “casting a critical eye” they aim to “encourage integrity and endurance of these movements”.

They conclude that while sustainability may indeed be adopted as a fashion “it does not necessarily follow that adoption of a fashion means that it will have no substantial impact”. They give the case of Total Quality Management, originally adopted as a fashion but, crucially, has “become a standard practice – a given rather than a novel idea”.

Zorn and Collins examine features of management fashions (see extracted table below). They conclude that sustainability is indeed a management fashion (with the exception of the bell shaped popularity curve – we are still on the upward side, and hope to see a leveling as it becomes the norm).

This raises several dangers: a narrow focus; that harm is being thinly disguised as good; a focus on reputation enhancing;

we suggest that adopting a fashionable practice such as CSR/sustainable business presents a relatively easy, but potentially superficial, path to enhancing the company’s reputation: make a relatively minor effort to “do good” and then subsequently trumpet the company’s CSR/sustainability commitments and achievements. Also, the faddishness of a particular practice increases the likelihood that the company’s rhetoric will not match the reality of their implementation.

That is, given the good will to be gained from claiming to embrace a fashionable practice and the ambiguity surrounding what it means to actually implement the practice, there is a strong temptation to claim to be “doing it” while actually doing very little.

They conclude though, that

There seems little doubt to us that many organizations are adopting CSR/sustainability in part because it is fashionable. Some fashions last longer than others, however, with some even becoming relatively permanent fixtures. Fashions grounded in practicality and utility can make a permanent mark on our culture. Thus, adopting sustainability because it is fashionable is not entirely a bad thing.

So, take home message:

a) Sustainability can be considered a management fashion (maybe even a fad).

b) This is OK, there are several cases of initiatives becoming normal practice by this route, in fact we can make use of it.

c) We might only have a couple of years in the spotlight to make this transition.

d) We need to be critical in our thinking and not let the excitement dull our rigour.

e) Some people will resent the very nature of the fashion, we need to engage with them differently and carefully.

 

Thank you Mr Jones, back to your fishing.

Zorn and Collins’ characteristics of management fashions.

 

Management fashion feature

Applicable to CSR/ Sustainable business?

Sample Evidence

Has a management technique, practice or concept at its heart

Yes

Concept: Triple bottom line accounting and social (or sustainability) reporting (Krajnc & Glavic, 2005; Livesey, 2002); stakeholder collaboration (Steurer, Langer, Konrad, & Martinuzzi, 2005); waste reduction

Belief: If adopted, organizational performance will increase

Yes

82% of executives agree that operating responsibly benefits the bottom line (Rochlin et al., 2005); proponents consistently argue the “business case” for CSR/sustainable business (e.g., Brady, Thomas, Clipsham, & Smith, 2005) and the bottom-line benefits of adoption (e.g., del Mar Garcia de los Salmones, Crespo, & Rodriguez del Bosque, 2005; Simpson & Kohers, 2002), including competitive advantage (see http://www.bsr.org/Meta/About/index.cfm)

Bell-shaped popularity life cycle

Not yet clear

Rapid growth in recent years of social reporting, TBL accounting, sustainability and CSR associations; academic publications on CSR rose rapidly from 1990 to 2002, possibly declining in 2003 (De Bakker, Groenewegen, & Den Hond, 2005)

Belief: The forefront of management progress

Yes

“Corporate sustainability can be viewed as a new and evolving corporate management paradigm” (Wilson, 2003, p. 1); “In the last three or four years the term [TBL] has spread like wildfire. The

Internet search engine, Google, returns roughly 25,200 web pages that mention [it]” (Norman & MacDonald, 2004, p. 244)

Its own distinctive lexicon and signifiers

Yes

TBL, corporate citizenship; employee well-being, social reporting; stakeholder engagement; social investing

Actively disseminated by management fashion industry

Yes

Consultants who specialize in sustainability (e.g., SustainAbility) as well as global consulting firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, tracking sustainability trends and currently boasting “400 global experts working with social and environmental issues” (Sustainability/CSR reporting, 2005); business press recognizing top performers (e.g., Fortune’s annual Accountability Rating); rapidly increasing academic programs focused on CSR/sustainable business (Beyond grey pinstripes, 2005)

Timing: Resonates with prominent concerns of the time

Yes

Climate change, peak oil, work-life balance, corporate accounting scandals; increasing gap between rich and poor; dramatically increased CEO salaries; failure of neo-liberal policies to improve well-being of the poor; distrust of multinational corporations

Describes the alternative in an unfavorable way

Yes

For example, Elkington (1999) states that, “To refuse the challenge implied by the TBL [triple bottom line] is to risk extinction” (p. 75).

Easy to remember terms

Yes

CSR, TBL

Provides concrete recipe for action

Somewhat

Specifics vary but almost all involve waste reduction, stakeholder engagement, TBL, and social reporting

Vague and ambiguous

Yes

Wide range of definitions for both CSR and sustainable business (e.g., www.sustainableliving.org/appen-a.htm; see also (Fergus & Rowney, 2005; Laine, 2005)

Appears to be academic

Yes

Extensive research that has increased dramatically since 1991 (de Bakker et al., 2005); Increasing number of business schools require courses in CSR/ sustainable business (Beyond grey pinstripes, 2005)

Launched in the East Coast of the United States

Somewhat

The Brundtland report was commissioned by the UN, which is headquartered in New York. John Elkington, originator of TBL concept and perhaps the premiere sustainability “guru,” is based in London.

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