The Three Barriers to Business Sustainability – and how to get through them

Written by Hal Hamilton

Sustainability in the business world always begins with quick wins. We increase efficiency with energy, water and fertilizer, for example. Those innovations save money and so are able to scale naturally.  Then it gets harder.

Beyond the early steps we face three barriers:

  1. Organizational resistance
  2. Systemic resistance
  3. Internal resistance.

To get through them, we have to learn:

  1. Pragmatism with a dose of inspiration, in the face of organizational resistance;
  2. Purpose in the face of systemic resistance; and
  3. Presence in the face of our own internal resistance.

First, let’s review the barriers.

Organizational resistance. Big wins on sustainability require new organizational goals, but organizations always push back on realignment. We hear from colleagues and bosses: It’s not my job. It’s not our job. There’s not enough time or money. Sustainability is too slow, with few easy wins. Customers don’t want sustainability enough to pay for it. If we can’t source a commodity in one place anymore, we’ll find it somewhere else.

Systemic resistance. The larger system reinforces organizational resistance: Businesses must grow or die; growth is measured in dollars this year, this quarter. Growth in market share requires adding value or cutting costs, short-term.Although business leaders increasingly see climate change or chronic poverty as risks, and many do create piece-meal programs they can communicate publicly, almost no resources are devoted to strategies that would actually solve the problems.

Internal resistance: We face internal resistance too. We remind ourselves: I need to attend to my career first. I don’t want to be the bleeding heart among practical people whom I like and upon whom my career depends.

So, what does one do, in the face of these barriers?

Pragmatism, with a dose of inspiration, is the antidote to organizational resistance. Don’t get pegged as the bleeding heart. Similarly, don’t get pegged as the anti-bleeding-heart. Create clear theories of change with crisp rationale for what you’re doing, even while looking for the inspirational openings for your colleagues. Create pilots that can deliver both business value AND inspiration.

In one Sustainable Food Lab project with Mars Petcare, we’re working on the sustainability of wheat production in Australia. Soil health is at the heart of the project, initiated by a grain buyer who worried about future supply of grains in Asia as temperatures rise. Over time, one of the key players in the company found inspiration in the fact that “my company really cares about farmers.” When she faced resistance from a key supplier, who said that their job was to buy grain, not to work on soil quality, she thought for a moment and said very clearly that all partners in the supply chain needed to get behind the long-term well-being of farmers in the region. She had become convinced that farmers needed support to adapt to a changing climate, and this adaptation was good for her company too.

Purpose is the antidote to systemic resistance. The energy of business can generate harmful results when places or people are sacrificed to shareholder wealth, but this same energy can be harnessed to public purposes. There’s nothing intrinsically good or evil about a relentless drive to generate value in the marketplace. Problems arise when people leave their values at home when they go to work because they don’t see opportunities to advance if they think and act for goals that are broader than profit seeking. Our collective challenge is to align the power of business innovation with the purpose of sustaining the earth and community.

When Dolf van der Brink, then CEO of Heineken Mexico, created a workshop for his senior management team to articulate their individual purposes in life, creativity blossomed in the business. The leadership team for Tecate, a beer brand associated with machismo, decided to take on the issue of gender violence in Mexican culture. They courageously told their customers that if men were violent with the women in their lives, these men were not welcome as customers. One commercial was extremely powerful and went viral on social media. The issue of gender violence became a hot topic. In this case individual purpose fueled corporate purpose and created societal momentum to solve a major problem. Senior managers held their breath to see how the commercial would affect sales, and sales rose. Similarly, when Unilever assessed the business impacts of such initiatives, their “brands with purpose” outperformed other brands by thirty percent.

In Heineken Mexico, the CEO created an environment within which people were encouraged to live their purpose (while also growing their brands). Most companies don’t have such CEOs, and many people are hesitant to step into a vulnerable unknown.

Presence is the antidote to internal resistance: I was just talking about dairy farmer income with a sustainability leader in a major company, and she replied with a bit of a shrug: “That’s important for the world but not for business.”

She and everyone in businesses needs to be ruthlessly pragmatic and deliver value. And, to be human, we also need to live our purpose. Therein lies the conundrum: to be successful and to be human. My suggestion is to practice presence, by which I mean ever growing awareness of your own aspirations, the inner hopes of others around you, and therefore the subtle openings to act on behalf of “the world.” You don’t have to quit being pragmatic. Presence is not preaching or advocating. Presence enables each of us to notice the gaps within which purpose emerges. These gaps occur in conversation when we are curious. We notice what could happen if thoughts and feelings connect in new ways. If we are present to others, both where they are now, and how they might shift with some new information and inspiration, positive change can become embedded in organizational culture.

Our work is personal at its essence. One of my long-time colleagues has patiently brought sustainability into the corporate culture of Costco, building upon an historic social commitment to their own workers. More than a dozen years ago, she created a pilot for vegetables from small farmers in the Guatemala highlands, during which a senior executive remarked that he would be able to take home stories of his work that his children would be proud of. Even relatively small examples of success can sometimes spark a shift in goals, targets, and habits of thought. Pilots are sometimes ephemeral, of course. They can dissipate if key people never come to “own” their importance to the organization. Our job is to cultivate that ownership in others, and the pride that comes from serving purpose.

The journey is pioneering and difficult, with barriers from inside organizations, the larger system driven by short-term financial competition, and our own internal hesitations. The pathway through barriers to sustainability requires skills like those of a Jedi master: pragmatism, purpose and presence.

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