Has Environmental Sustainability Lost its Relevance?

Companies have thought for decades about business-focused solutions to fix the deteriorating environment. But judging by continually rising waters and temperatures, we may need a rethink about what sustainability means, suggest participants at a recent conference at Harvard Business School. A report by co-organizer Geoffrey Jones.
by Geoffrey G. Jones

For businesses and other organizations seeking to overcome roadblocks to sustainability over the last few decades, much can be learned from the debates I heard at the recent Harvard Business School conference, Understanding and Overcoming Roadblocks to Sustainability, which assembled a stellar cast of practitioners, management researchers, and business and environmental historians.

As co-organizer of the event with HBS Professor Amy Edmondson and Swedish business historian Anki Bergquist, I was thrilled as the participants engaged in a deep dive into why environmental fundamentals continue to deteriorate sharply despite decades of talk about business and sustainability. Participants eschewed focusing on the handful of win/win cases to explore why attention to environmental sustainability is just plain hard. Some of the major issues identified: the power of vested interests, the alleged short-term nature of capital markets, and the way the human thought process works.

Overcoming roadblocks requires public policies to be much more aligned with creating the right incentives to support long-term commitments and radical shifts at the same time, and business might be the only entity that can effectively lobby to pass such policy. It’s time to revisit the assumption, one speaker argued, that sustainability can be reconciled with economic growth.

"What’s the use of a zero-waste and carbon-free island resort in a world headed toward a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius?"

A number of practitioners reported that progress could and was being made in their sectors, despite the challenges. Many are focusing energy on addressing short-term biases in capital markets and in the ability of investors to guide and prompt corporate boards to reduce their environmental impact. In the eco-tourism field, impressive companies are developing advanced methods for both measuring and countering environmental impact.

Solutions becoming more complex

However, the more speakers considered the business system as a whole—or even more broadly what several speakers called Earth Systems—the more challenging and complex the solutions became. For instance, what’s the use of a zero-waste and carbon-free island resort in a world headed toward a temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius?

Management studies itself was seen by some speakers as part of the problem, rather than offering practitioners viable solutions. Three decades of writers asserting that win-win solutions were possible had made it all seem too easy to achieve results, when it’s not. Sustainability has become reconciled with success in generating profits, rather than focusing on preventing further deterioration of the natural environment. Worse, and surprising to many with decades of experience in sustainable business, some members of the new generation seem to be espousing the ideas this field began with: that eco-efficiency (energy savings, waste reduction, and green design) is a “free lunch” solution and the best path forward. But are small operational fixes like lighting retrofits meaningful in a climate-changed world, or are they necessary but wildly insufficient?

The very concept of sustainability was indeed critiqued by many speakers as having become a major roadblock. Partly, this is due to the broadening of the concept since it emerged in the 1980s, but as one practitioner astutely pointed out, the imprecision of sustainability discourse has led businesses to understand the very definition and metrics of “sustainable business” as a competitive space.

“Three decades of writers asserting that win-win solutions were possible had made it all seem too easy to achieve results, when it’s not”

Speakers called for more rigorous exploration of the choices that needed to be constantly made in progress toward less environmentally damaging corporate practices, and identified the great limitations of research and data on which to make such choices. We have no measure of the cost of the extinction of a species, for example. The continued lack of transparency in corporate reporting, and the lack of hard research on the impact of investing, was noted by speakers. The system-wide nature of sustainability challenges requires system-wide solutions, and especially new and holistic ways of thinking.

What can businesses do now?

The identification of sustainability as a system-wide problem raised the question of what individual business leaders could do.

There were calls for a new wave of corporate environmentalism, which would assertively lobby for new environmental policies. The group’s exercise of voice, in the manner of the National Rifle Association, was considered one essential path forward. Such a path would move the business community beyond its default tendency to focus on itself, on improved plant operations, or carbon footprint reduction, and instead recognize, as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink recently pointed out, the broader role of business in improving society as a whole.

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.