The Greenwash Brigade

Outdated mental models thwart sustainability — details at 6

Heidi Siegelbaum Sep 22, 2009

Last week, Andrew Revkin noted the recently released MIT Sloan Management Review/Boston Consulting Group report on the pace and substance of corporate sustainability adoption. I wasn’t particularly surprised at the results nor did it ring any greenwash bells. It’s good but sobering news:

  • 92% of 2,000 respondents said they are addressing sustainability in some way, but…

  • More than 70% said their company has not developed a clear business case for sustainability.

  • Latin American companies see environmental destruction as a major driver but American companies see government regulation as that driver.

  • There is a chasm between intent and action (60% of respondents have no plan overall to address sustainability).

  • Most respondents expressed limited concern about their gaps in technical and operational capabilities needed to address sustainability.

  • “Experts” in sustainability were much more likely to see the value creation/ business case for sustainability than executives less familiar with sustainability principles.

And now, from my own non-statistically significant informal observations:

  1. People always fudge on surveys because we want to appear better or more noble than we really are. The truth lies in action. Sustainable progress in product development, manufacturing and supply chain alignment can be at odds with the public posture and lobbying efforts of a corporation which brings into play the sustainable product vs. the not-so-sustainable Board or company evaluation.

  2. The report indicates that an outdated mental model was one of the most significant barriers to sustainability plans and action. I have spent 20 years listening to rhetoric about “the environment” as anathema to strategic business objectives. What’s really at fault?

  • Most companies are not true learning organizations capable of suspending the belief they know everything and actually listening to others;

  • Exquisitely effective anti-environmental frames and messaging;

  • Obscure “nature is sacred” arguments by many NGOs and public agencies which fail to make the business case for business value creation;

  • A flat-earth orientation to the world which defies physics, natural systems and is grossly ignorant of our perilous and delicate reliance on Earth systems;

  • Obscene expectations for short-term returns by investors, which lead to dubious business decisions;

  • A lack of a direct feedback loops: We can delay, hide or export all the impacts of an inefficient and injurious business model and still get up each morning and drive our SUVs without batting an eye; and
  • A tendency for corporate spokespersons to spew rhetoric about how awful government is and how “environmentalists” are disconnected from core business values.

The derriere we save may be our own as we wend your way through the sustainability matrix. Saving that derriere should be a core strategy for businesses everywhere because it’s not just about earth physics but the volatility of resource prices, civil war occasioned by climate change and a cranky and environmentally aware younger generation that may not want to work for you or buy your products… if you fall down on the job.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.