It's easy being 'green,' but true value is to attain sustainability

If your CEO comes into your office and says, "We need to green up our image. Go launch a PR campaign," what would you do?

If your CEO comes into your office and says, "We need to green up our image. Go launch a PR campaign," what would you do? If you're smart, you'll just say "no."

This scenario is pretty likely, given the findings of The Business of Sustainability, a survey of 2,000 global executives published by the MIT Sloan Management Review in December 2009. Over 90% of respondents claimed their company was addressing sustainability and, by a wide margin, "improved company/brand image" was the biggest benefit. Reading a bit further, this finding reveals the problem: "The majority of sustainability actions undertaken to date appear to be limited to those necessary to meet regulatory requirements."

As one sustainability expert I know well says, "Complying with laws and regulations means you're not a criminal; it doesn't make you an environmentalist."

These respondents are in danger of falling into the trap that "green marketing" has followed for 20 years: treating "green" as a product feature or attribute. You might as well draw a big green bull's-eye on your company or brand and beg for the activists to bash you for greenwashing.

These findings reflect the views of what the study's authors call "novice practitioners". In contrast, the "sustainability experts" see sustainability as a strategic tool for value creation and can articulate a financial case for it. The experts know something novices don't: green is superficial while sustainability requires a major shift of vision, culture, and operations. It's a tall order. According to London-based sustainable business analyst firm, Verdantix, there is "a severe management deficit" in planning and coordinating climate change and sustainable business strategies.

This gap presents the real opportunity for you to satisfy your CEO, prevent a "greenwashing" backlash, and have a significant impact on your company's strategy.

So go ahead and agree with your CEO that sustainability is a value that is gaining broad support and it's the time to embrace it. Remind him or her that the best corporate image campaigns rest on a solid set of demonstrable company values. Then, instead of a green image campaign, propose a sustainability effort. Offer to be his lieutenant in engaging executives, staff, and other stakeholders to define the sustainability vision, identify risks and opportunities, and make it routine in company operations. Just don't call it "green."

Jim Nail is a consultant, writer, and corporate sustainability expert.

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