Monday, May 18, 2009

The Teenage Years of Sustainable Business

I had one of those experiences this week that causes reflection.  While driving to church with my 3 children in the car, I got distracted and did not slow down while merging onto a state highway from the freeway.  The result was a pleasant conversation with local law enforcement about my driving and lack of attention to the local speed limit.  As I continued on my way to church, now on the verge of being late, but not wanting to push my luck in making up time, I realized how much our perspective changes with experience.

As a teenager, I lived in a small town.  My friends and I had the city figured out.  The police station sat in the middle of town and the town had exactly 6 police cruisers.  Quickly, we all learned that if we paid attention while driving, we could easily exceed the speed limit without fear of a ticket.  Most trips through town required that you pass the station, and, on average, there were no less than 4 cruisers at the station.  By counting cars, the risk of being caught dropped to manageable levels and speeding became a part of the drive through town, once the count  of cruisers reached 6.

Fast forward to today.  While I have moved far beyond counting cars and attempts to evade the law, sustainable business practices are still in their teenage years; attempting to get away with doing as little as possible, for maximum impact.  Companies today see dollar signs when they associate and assimilate green/environmental marketing into the overall strategy.  Companies participate in green with varying levels of commitment.  Some do just enough to add a green leaf to their logo, others make firm commitments to improve, while a select few actually act responsibly and improve environmental performance.

Several months ago, I shared my thoughts on transparency in business.  In order to truly adopt sustainable practices, companies need to speak openly with customers about these changes and share successes and failures.  Unfortunately, businesses continue to hide behind a guise of proprietary business practices to avoid showing the gap between what they say and what they do. 

Many organizations are popping up to help hold us responsible for our claims.  They set standards and monitor progress, but much of the reporting is still subject to human error and even intentional inaccuracy.  When no one is watching, many organizations slip back into the old ways of operation.  Some even “count the cars” to know when it is ok to return to “business as usual”. 

While my situation turned out favorable (apparently local law enforcement has a soft spot for a father of 3 on his way to church) and only a warning was issued, can we afford a warning in business?  Can sustainable efforts thrive if business continues to take the path that leads to minimal action?  Do businesses really live up to their marketing message, advertising sustainable practices?

Help your business grow up and mature past the teenage years of evading discovery.  Recognize your shortcomings.  Plan, Communicate, Act and Report.

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