Dr. Andrew Venter Blog
The Sustainability Game
August 13, 2012
Sustainability is clearly a “buzzword” amongst corporates. Unfortunately, in my opinion, most corporate Boards seem to view sustainability as the challenge of finding ways of growing as fast as possible whilst trying not to damage the natural environment too seriously. Clearly this is a flawed approach and is unsustainable! When I visualize this corporate approach to sustainability, I picture the Jenga game, in which players take turns to remove a block from a tower and then balance it on top, creating a taller yet increasingly unstable structure. Inevitably the tower collapses. This is not sustainability. In fact it is a direct contradiction, given that sustainability is most simply defined as the “capacity to endure”!
However, behind the glossy sustainability reports and slick Powerpoint presentations, I’m beginning to sense a deeper understanding of sustainability amongst the ever increasing ranks of “sustainability practioners”. This understanding is reflected through a slow shift from the drive for sustainable growth to a focus on nurturing a sustainable legacy, which will enable these very businesses to comfortably endure, in the face of climate change, growing resource constraints and social instability. These are very real challenges which are the direct consequence of the rampant population growth, environmental rape and economic growth at all costs, approaches which have characterized human behaviour this past century.
The shift to a focus on nurturing a sustainable legacy is very exciting. To use the Jenga analogy again, the approach is about building a tower and then progressively strengthening it through the replacement of the weak social, economic and environmental blocks, and then identifying and filling the gaps. This approach also recognises that whilst profit sits at the heart of business, long term profit requires the nurture of the communities that are involved in and affected by the business, and the stewardship of the natural environment which supports and is affected by the business.
A classic bad example for me is SASOL which is clearly one of South Africa’s most profitable businesses. It is also one of South Africa’s worst environmental polluters and has a shocking social record – simply visit the Embalenhle community outside Secunda to experience first hand this legacy. Imagine if SASOL had set out from the very beginning to shape a world class sustainability legacy. The SASOL brains trust would today undoubtedly be at the forefront of green technology and the SASOL shareholders would be credited with some of the most progressive social development models in the world. Unfortunately, they didn’t and so today it is amongst the most vilified companies in the world. The day that SASOL’s profits start sliding it will be in very serious trouble as there is little doubt that its many environmental and social enemies will turn on it. There will be little understanding or empathy. Rather, it will be treated with the same disdain that it has demonstrated. I’m not sure that the SASOL Board gets this or that its shareholders care at the moment. I do know that there are limited efforts underway to try and find ways of addressing its social and environmental legacies. Time will tell whether these efforts will be enough.
By contrast UNILEVER presents an interesting alternative. On the one side there is little doubt that UNILEVER is one of the prime drivers of global economic, environmental and social change around the world – over 1 billion people use a UNILEVER product each day! They have been widely criticised for their impacts and have not always responded as progressively as they should have. However, once they have responded they have done so forcefully and with intent, as demonstrated by their engagement in the sustainable fisheries and palm oil debates. Every UNILEVER manager is under intense pressure to find ways of improving the social and environmental legacy associated with their operations, and this is catalysing an incredible wave of innovation. By contrast with SASOL, UNILEVER’s clear sustainability intent and commitment has earned them significant “understanding” and empathy when they have had problems.
I’d like hear about your views on the “Sustainability” game and would particularly like to hear about examples which you feel are really bad or really good, and deserve to be profiled accordingly – andrewventer.wordpress.com.Go back