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It’s Time to Ban the Empty Word ‘Sustainability’

© DR

The corporate buzz word has become a meaningless slogan.

While the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that became all the rage some time ago initially had worthwhile aims, it is now more commonly used by corporations to out-worthy their competitors.

Originally CSR encouraged corporations to consider the impact of their business on society, which provides their consumers and clients, their staff, and – certainly in the case of bankers – pays for their mistakes. So when was Corporate Social Responsibility replaced with Corporate Sustainability Rhetoric?

As with many aspects of business, the innovators and early adopters have a clear understanding of what they are doing and why. However, by the time that new practice features in business handbooks, it has become a fad that must be followed in order to maintain market share. At this point all that is desired is the easiest route to demonstrate compliance.

Thus CSR has gone the way of Quality Assurance (QA). Once CSR and QA were business improvement activities. A good CSR policy connected a business to the community that supported it. A well written QA system helped the business operations. Both have been reduced to tick-box auditing with the aim of allowing businesses to demonstrate that they are no worse than their competitors.

Perhaps political leaders are reading these same handbooks – after all, doesn’t the private sector have all the answers? This may explain why we see rhetoric replacing action on sustainable development in all spheres of life, including politics and national leadership. This leads to meaningless comparisons such as the recent report by “sustainability investment firm” Robeco that ranks countries for their “sustainability”.

I quote from the introduction:

In an effort to continuously integrate sustainability considerations into a growing range of asset classes and prompted by the onset of the financial crisis, Robeco and RobecoSAM have been working together to develop a comprehensive and systematic framework for determining country sustainability rankings. This framework is designed to complement traditional rating agencies and traditional financial analysis of a country.

We have reached the point of “Sustainability Accounting”. Rather than recognising that all human activity has impacts and taking responsibility for them, sustainability accounting uses a limited set of performance indicators which can obscure the real issues. Competing organisations in any sphere, from retail stores to governments, vie to be more sustainable than each other. We see social media discussions about “sustainable leadership” or how to “leverage sustainability” in business. All of which seems to me to be utter baloney. Meanwhile a lucrative new industry has grown up around “sustainability consultancy” – whatever that means.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as “the property of being sustainable”. It also defines “sustainable” as “to be capable of enduring”, which should be enough for us all to want to be sustainable – consider the alternative: “unsustainable”. If any activity is not sustainable, from a single business to an entire economy, it will cease. By definition. A leader who fails to lead a business or country sustainably will bring about its demise. This is not a question of degree. There is no “more sustainable” or “less sustainable”. The only variable is how long the organisation or activity can survive.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines the term “environmental sustainability” as “the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”. So environmental sustainability is a property of a system or rate of activity, such as constructing buildings or consuming fuel. This makes it clear that sustainability is inherent to the system or activity as it surely cannot be added afterwards through political or corporate leadership.

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