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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sustainability is Overrated

Well, perhaps I really mean overemphasized rather than overrated. As I said in my ‘Themes for 2010” post, I have some thoughts on terminology. I hear the term sustainability used as a catch all for corporate social responsibility. I hear it used as a catch all for addressing environmental issues. I don’t think either uses are correct.

The overarching theme is corporate responsibility. (Is it too late to change the title of my blog to CRPerspective?)

Then I see there being a set of principles that can be applied to help us in our corporate responsibility. Those principles are governance, accountability, ethics, transparency, materiality, and, of course, sustainability.

Many of the principles, but in particular sustainability, can be looked at within the context of three interdependent realms; social, economic and environmental.

So, for example, sustainability can apply just as readily to social and economic issues in the community as it can to environment. Consider the impact of sub-prime loans on the economic sustainability of the communities in which they were offered and the impact of tobacco on social sustainability (which includes health).

But the other principles are equally important. In using the term sustainability to describe the whole shebang of corporate responsibility we are underplaying the importance of those principles. We will not effect change without corresponding attention to governance, accountability, ethics, transparency and materiality.

And what of volunteering, community investment, stakeholder engagement, diversity, philanthropy, reporting, risk analysis, incentive programs, business cases and many other things that comprise the daily bread and butter of the job of CR practitioners ? I see these as tools. Tools that help the business deliver against the principles and across the three realms of CR.

I would be interested in your views on my approach.

Postscript - I added a new post on this topic titled "Ethics Trumps Sustainability" on May 26 2010


  1. Suggest you give Donna Woods' model for corporate social performance a read - she's covered the same ground, and also pretty impressively.

  2. hello Kevin, I see CSR (or CR as i tend to prefer, and yes, you can change your blog title ;)), as an element on the road to sustainability. Sustainability in my view is the goal, or even an outcome, not a principle. Governance and ethics are practices (or tools). Transparency and materiality are principles. CSR is assuming responsibility for impacts (direct and indirect) and improving them based on the principles of materiality and transparency for all stakeholders (after a process of dialogue). Sustainability is the result, both the sustainability of the business itself, and the contribution to global sustainainability. Sustainability might also refer to a business which uses its resources to address world issues such as the Millenium Development Goals which may go beyond the realm of a company's first tier indirect impacts (such as sub-prime loans). What you describe as tools are to me the business activities and processes which a Company maintains as part of its business/cr strategy.
    However, when it comes to the crunch, I suspect that we probably agree that how we label things is less important than the fact that Companies actually do them.

    warm regards, elaine

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  4. Hi Elaine, I think that we agree broadly on the scope of corporate responsbility, although you argue persuasively for an alternative hierarchy.

    I agree also that how we label things is less important than that we do them. But I do worry (in the USA at least) that the widespread use of the terminology 'sustainability' combined with the narrow focus on environment is leading to other key issues of CR being left behind.

  5. I agree that the term "sustainability" is often being used to describe a narrower notion, such as the envronement. However, "sustainability" is the objective. Responsibility is a means to that end, rather than an aspiration in itself. In other words, nobody dreams of becoming responsible, but everyone wants to survive and thrive in the long-term. And calling it long-termism would be equally misguided as using the term "responsibility"; for the same reasons.

    I suggest we stick to the term "sustainability" and put our energies into addressing its fuller meaning.

  6. Kevin:
    I think your views are correct. I would caution about lumping concepts like 'materiality' and 'ethics' into the scope of 'sustainability.'

    For there to be progress, sustainability can be a destination unto itself -- better environmental practices, combined with better social and economic benefits.

    Finally: I would like to invite you to participate as an Advisor and Speaker to a new communications industry event, "The Sustainable Network" which is designed for sustainability managers and executives in the communications industry to share best practices, gain education and share peer-to-peer interaction.

    I'll be happy to send more details, please respond via email to: