Why business is wrong about Sustainability

Posted April 26th, 2011 by The Environment Site with No Comments

You know, I used to love Laurel and Hardy.  I’m one of that generation who grew up with them regularly on BBC2 in the afternoons, along with other black and white classics.  This, of course, was in the days when there were less than a handful of channels and all broadcast quality instead of commercial pap.

Recently I got into a debate with members of the business community about CSR and sustainability.  It’s a subject which really motivates me and if I have a weakness it’s the need to rake over it time and time again.

However, what got me in this debate was the view which was being expressed about the difference between CSR and sustainability.  It was, I have to say, a little Laurel and Hardy.

The consensus seemed to be that CSR was all about the short term actions a company took while sustainability is all about the long term strategy a company employs.  Other than that the two were indistinguishable.  This is like saying Laurel the tall one, Hardy’s the fat one, but other than that they’re both white men in bowler hats.

While this may be true about Laurel and Hardy, it’s not true of CSR and sustainability.

CSR *is* about the actions a company takes.  However, these actions are made according to how the company believes it can add value to its positive impact and mitigate its negative impact.  What is considered valuable, damaging and responsible will vary from industry to country to culture and it will also vary over the short to medium term.

Sustainability is all about resource use: mineral, natural and human and the rate at which we’re consuming those resources. This does not vary: using something more quickly than its replaced is universaly unsustainable, just like borrowing more money than you’re making is.

To have a viable long term company you have to think about sustainability, yes, but sustainability can be addressed just as immediately as CSR.  For example, our scale of oil and mineral use it utterly unsustainable.  Companies can address that today just as they are addressing issues of social inclusiveness or environmental degredation.

A CSR correspondent of mine recently noted that they were distraught by how few companies and consultants in the area who still don’t get CSR.  “It’s not about giving to random organisations and NGOs,” this person said in paraphrase, “It’s about shaping the corporate strategy around social and environmental goals as well as financial ones.”

Similarly, I’m distraught about how companies and consultants still don’t seem to get sustainability.  It’s not about aligning your strategy to the changes which will happen tomorrow; it’s about ensuring you don’t over consume today, which in turn makes tomorrow viable.  Leave it until tomorrow though, and there simply won’t be one.

So CSR and sustainability both address the same spectrum of issues represented broadly in triple bottom line economics.  However they’re not a double act like Laurel and Hardy: much more like Dudley Moore and Richard Prior.  Comedians, yes, with the same aim of getting people to laugh and examine themselves.  However, there the similarity ends.

Picture Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tom-margie/1536404154

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