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As few short months ago, I sat in a board meeting, and one of the more mature board members commented that “corporate sustainability plans were nice, but they mean nothing.”  In today’s world, where social media can share a failure, this is a risky statement, and an even more risky strategy to have.

Sustainability

My colleague at the table went on to say, “at the business decision level, when revenue goals or meeting stakeholder objectives are in conflict with a corporate sustainability plan’s activities, costs and initiatives, sustainability will always lose.”

I was taken aback by this, as this person was generally pretty savvy about the ethical complexities involved with sustainability.  And since the person was an avid naturalist I was shocked that this was his position.  Moreover, the board member’s reach stretched out over a number of boards, small and large – corporate and non-profit.

OK, nothing new here.  If you have read a newspaper in the last 3 months, you know this story so far is not hard to believe.  If a company’s revenue or stakeholder objectives never conflict with sustainability objectives, then that company is doing something exceptionally right.  However, in today’s world where tension for budget in an organization is escalated by a weakened economy, it’s more likely that conflict is quite common between sustainability objectives and the business’ goals.

What’s different today? Is it a change in the domain of ethics that has driven this? Or is it something else?  Let’s consider BP, Halliburton and Transocean in the Deepwater Horizon spill 10 April 2010. The media provided great coverage.  However, it was the details shared over social media that really called into question the things that broadcast news could not cover.  [I’m not taking a stand or even voicing an opinion on right, wrong or fault – just stating the obvious role that social media played in uncovering aspects of the event that a decade ago would go unnoticed.]  Within a month, Greenpeace posted a piece with dozens of social-media-generated visuals and comments, and AdWeek was writing about the death of BP’s sustainability brand image. Within 2 months, the blogosphere was discussing the inevitable re-imaging of the BP brand, and logo.

The point of this extreme case is to understand that sustainability must be more than an afterthought, it has to be deep in the core culture of a company, and pervasive in the company strategy across and throughout all levels of an organization and confidently owned in the C-suite.  It’s not hard to imagine the pain and loss felt by BP’s leadership and staff after investing hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade to brand the company’s sustainability image as “Beyond Petroleum.”

It requires serious leadership effort and commitment to keep the adopted sustainability plan on track, and a part of the company culture.  If done well, it is not an afterthought or even a separate plan, it is the naturally ethical and constantly customer-centric way of doing business – regardless of what language, country, culture or ocean is involved.  If not, it is inevitable that lack of commitment to sustainability  will uncover hollow leadership. The discovery will be permanently communicated by the social media truth squad, a.k.a. “the public.”  The real costs are enormous, and perhaps irreversible.

What do you think? Can a company get away with a weak sustainability plan today, with social media out there to hold it accountable?

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