Every so often new terminology gains currency, but the wheel of sustainability keeps turning and shows little sign of being re-invented, says Peter Knight

Looking moody, Homer Simpson confides: “I just want to be left alone with my thought.”

All businesses – certainly those that blog – want to be seen as thought leaders, devising disruptive ideas that chart a new course for their sectors and bring fame to the thinkers.

And nowhere are there more wannabe thought leaders than in the ranks of the sustainerati. But despite the obvious passion for ideas, has the sustainerati ever had more than a single thought – the original concept of sustainable development?

Ever since 1987 when the then prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, issued her definition of sustainable development, we have been trying to interpret the idea for a sceptical business world.

It has apparently been such a strenuous climb describing this simple idea that we have failed to produce any further thoughts of merit. Instead, we have simply been adding to the literature as a crochet worker would expand ever outwards, repeating but not innovating.

This is quite disturbing, given the common sense of the concept. Sustainability means we have to stop thinking only of today, and using our backyard as a lavatory, and we must realise it is not in our interests to treat other people as quasi slaves.

What’s so difficult to understand? The trouble seems to lie in the fact that the sustainability concept was devised by a UN commission and appears to have been written in Old Norse. All subsequent thoughts on sustainability by self-appointed thought leaders have been interpretations or variations of its principles. Sustainability crochet, like granny’s doilies.

Take the idea of shared value. This is from the big man of ideas, Professor Michael Porter. The Harvard academic, best known for his thoughts on competitiveness and healthcare reform, ignored sustainable development for most of his career. Then he came up with the idea of shared value.

This is where a business strategy is predicated on the notion that a company’s actions create value for the investors as well as society. A company invents a new drug and makes the world a better place while simultaneously enriching its shareholders – ie sharing the value created. Sounds a lot like sustainability written in English rather than Old Norse.

Principles from Mars

But wait a minute, look at the five principles that Forrest E Mars laid out when he began to expand the Mars company in 1947. He said the objective was to build a business that creates a “mutuality of interests” for all stakeholders – consumers, employees, suppliers and others.

Mutuality is Old Norse for shared value. Forrest wrote his treatise – and put it into practice – a good four decades before Prof Porter launched his idea, maybe proving that there is nothing really new or unique when it comes to thought leadership.

That can certainly be said for the various interpretations of sustainability that have emerged as proponents sought ways to make the concept sound more business-like. Prime among these are the business case for sustainability, currently propagated by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the catchy phrase triple bottom line.

It was the energetic author John Elkington who devised the term triple bottom line. For a while it was an effective way of describing how business had to take a broader view of its activities and perform well across social and environmental criteria, as well as financial. Great term, excellent sentiments, good interpretation, but, as it transpired, impossible to measure.

The triple bottom line term has begun to fade in favour of increased use of the word “capital”, again as a way of trying to break away from the Old Norse and speak to a sceptical business community in their own language. It started some time ago with the popularisation of the idea of “natural capitalism” by the author Paul Hawken. The argument is that the value that lies in our ecosystems (air, water, land) should be used but not abused, if society is to progress.

With the launch of the integrated reporting framework (a logical extension of the triple bottom line concept), the use of “capital” has run amok with the framework identifying no fewer than seven types of capital.

Whoa! Companies are expected to report on their performance at using and abusing “capitals” called financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social, relationship, and natural.

If we found the triple bottom line impossible to measure, how on earth are we going to manage the hepta bottom line?

Anyone have a thought?

Peter Knight is chairman, Context Group.


business strategy  CR Strategy  Pioneers  thought leaders 

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