Sustainability – it’s pretty hard to read a corporate report, listen to a business guru or attend a business forum without hearing the word. BMW claim “sustainability isn’t a buzzword for the BMW Group, but is deeply anchored in the corporate strategy”. Fonterra proudly announce they are “serious about sustainability”, and even good ol’ NZ Post reckons “sustainability sits at the heart of our business”. In the universities academics are working long hours to define, understand and operationalise the concept, with enough papers published to wipe out half a forest. It seems that everybody is talking about it, thinking about it and either doing it or claiming to do it, and that is fantastic because without a massive shift towards sustainability in business practices there will be no business to practice.
We’ve known for a long time that the planet is in trouble. In 1987 the Brundtland commission saw what had to happen, gave it the name ‘sustainable development’ and described it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Then John Elkington came up with the triple bottom line in 1998 that gave us a framework we could work with: businesses could be profitable while being a productive and positive member of society and ensuring the environment wasn’t being depleted. The business and academic communities know this and take it seriously, but what about the public?
How many of the men, women and teenagers queuing up at the malls have heard of the Brundtland commission, or know what a triple bottom line is? How many people reading claims about sustainability actually know what it means, or why it’s important? Do they think it’s just another buzz word to sell hybrid cars or soap that’s kind to dolphins? Are business claims about sustainability influencing consumer behaviour?
Research has shown the majority of consumers would rather do the ‘green’ thing, especially if the barriers aren’t too high. Most people want the world to be a better place for their children, and it could be said that the overwhelming majority of people are greenies, even if they don’t realise it. Most people would really like the concept of sustainability, but there has been very little research on public understanding of the concept. So how do we know what they think about those claims the business community makes? Do they understand that it’s more than just recycling paper, or using their own shopping bags? The public must be able understand that business sustainability is more than just doing a couple of good things — that it’s about changing everything for the better and that it’s a constant process of improvement which means we can have what we want today without stopping our children from getting their needs met tomorrow.
Businesses that take sustainability seriously and are making the required changes deserve to be rewarded by their customers, which means we must stop talking amongst ourselves about sustainability and assuming everyone else understands us. We need to find out what people think sustainability actually is, that way we can begin to communicate the concept effectively. Only then we will see the change that's really needed.