Businesses need to ditch the spin and become transparent about their true environmental credentials.
What’s happening with green business these days? Plenty, according to Kathryn Cooper, director of the Sustainability Learning Centre. Cooper, who has been one of Ontario’s leading sustainability consultants since 2009, views the greening of business as a long, slow boil – a slowly growing field of practice that might well have grown faster if the recession had not hit so hard. She has seen sustainability come into companies by a number of different routes, starting with environmental management of operations and the desire to be certified ISO 14000.
In recent years, she has also seen it percolating through purchasing and the greening of the supply chain. She sees new interest in sustainability and accountability worldwide among project managers as well as designers. Five years ago, environmental concerns were just another silo in management thinking, but now the approach is much more integrated, emanating from many touch points within a company. That said, the marketing practice of “greenwashing,” or putting a green “spin” on business as usual, is still widespread.
During her 13-year tenure as director of training at the Guelph Technology Centre, Cooper found that there was a silver lining, or maybe a green hue, to the clouds of recession: For companies that had weathered the economic downturn, it seemed that adversity had acted as a catalyst for critical thinking, and, at the same time, people started promoting eco-efficiency training as a way to reduce costs in areas like energy, water, and waste.
Today, green core competencies are seen as important new skills for human resources, and we have come to understand the ways that they generate competitive advantage. As a result, sustainability trainers should now be asking, “What is the canon of green skills and abilities that every employee in every company needs to develop?”
A key to sustainable business is transparency. Companies that really walk the green talk (such as Cascades Fine Paper and Steam Whistle Brewing) make a commitment to transparency regarding environmental and labour practices throughout the supply chain. They have an environmentally responsible story to tell about energy, waste, and workers throughout the life cycle of a product.
When it comes to transparent reporting of this “life-cycle story,” says Cooper, marketers tend to be sustainability laggards. The “say-do gap” is huge, due to the fact that the art of “spin” is in the DNA of marketing. The problem, she suggests, is that “you can’t spin sustainability.” Spinning sustainability feeds into our skepticism, and the result is that there is a huge deficit of customer trust out there. Many citizens see through spin much more than companies think they do, and are increasingly aware of the environmental and human-rights abuses that many companies have been hiding. Cooper thinks that, over time, the evolution toward radical transparency will increase pressure to protect social and environmental rights throughout transnational supply chains.
Sustainable businesses attribute value to social and environmental benefits in addition to profit maximization, incorporating this emphasis on the “triple bottom line” into their culture. Some may even choose to commit to the triple bottom line by becoming certified B Corporations. People tend to think that the three metrics of financial, social, and environmental value are separate but complimentary. Cooper suggests that we need to instead picture them as interdependent concepts, with the three circles of profit, people, and planet overlapping one another. It is no longer acceptable (and, indeed, it has always been bad for people and planet) to privatize the benefits and socialize the costs of doing business. “Not that there isn’t financial benefit from doing the right thing environmentally,” says Cooper, “but we need a way to understand the internalization of economic externalities.”
Photos courtesy of Reuters