Provisional Sustainability – A Double-edged Sword?



During a recent panel on Economic Sustainability one of the panelists remarked that “this is not about morality – it’s about business.”  When he said the word morality it was with a tone that implied flighty sentimentalism that has no place in the real world – especially in a corporate boardroom.  He stressed the word business, however, with a note of seriousness and even a trace of reverence.

The speaker was a sustainability executive with a large consumer products company who has done a great deal to advance sustainable business practices within his own company and industry.  So I greatly admire and respect him and the good work that he and his company are doing.  His remark passed by the corporate directors in the audience with tacit approval.

It’s been gnawing at me ever since, though, and has rekindled a growing feeling of dissonance that’s arisen between my understanding of sustainability and how it is being interpreted and adopted by a large segment of the business community.

At the root of this dissonance, I think, is a belief in separation and the compartmentalization that it leads to.  Separating morality from business.  Separating internalities from externalities.  Compartmentalizing the values that many of us vow to cultivate on the Sabbath from those that actually inform our actions during the workweek.  And the fact that this separation and compartmentalization somehow makes sense or seems ok.

But my understanding of sustainability is based on a fundamental realization of mutual interdependence, of the non-dual nature of all natural systems.  That what we do in one realm affects everything else, which means that how we go about creating our own wellbeing can positively or negatively affect the ability of others and future generations to achieve similar levels of overall wellbeing.

Realizing the truth of interdependence is critical, but only a first step. Going further by actually caring about its implications naturally evokes values like empathy and compassion.  While it’s not often talked about openly, and scoffed at by some, I believe that genuine sustainability is based on moral foundations that are common to the same spiritual traditions that most business leaders claim to practice.

Rather than perpetuating or improving an economic model that is based on the illusion of separation, sustainability points to a more evolved or mature ethos in which business functions more in accord with natural laws.  Just as sustainability reveals the integration of all things, it offers us each a way to integrate our deepest held moral convictions and values into every aspect of our lives – including our economic lives.  Integrating genuine sustainability into corporate governance and strategy will engender more adaptive business designs, products and practices that are in fact more reality-based than the inherently unsustainable illusion-based foundations upon which our dominant economic system has been built.

Provisional sustainability can cut both ways

“Economic sustainability is not just a green issue, it’s good for the bottom-line.”  This assertion made by the panel’s moderator implies that sustainability is just another strategy for businesses to increase shareholder value, often a euphemism for share price.  I’ve come to characterize this as provisional sustainability.

Provisional in the sense of being “arranged or existing for the present, possibly to be changed later.”  But also in a deeper sense describing an attitude toward life that is more or less imaginary, not rooted in reality, commonly associated with puer psychology.  Carl Jung wrote about the provisional life as being one of the puer aeternus, or eternal child.  A grown child lives a provisional life since he is never invested or completely “all in.”  Because of fear or diffidence, he will only engage with others with a proviso, or with the provision that he can deal with life on his own terms or narrow self-interest.  The mature adult or vir (man), on the contrary, lives a life of virtue completely embracing all of reality as it is.

Perhaps pitching sustainability as being good for the bottom line is the most skillful way of convincing companies operating under the legacy shareholder primacy model to embark on the sustainability path.  Re-engineering processes to use fewer resources and reduce waste not only increases profit margins, it’s less harmful for the environment.  And companies who issue CSR and sustainability reports are at least going public with some level of commitment and transparency.  So these are all positive developments, especially when large companies with oversized impacts work to become less harmful.

If, however, a company’s commitment to its notion of sustainability is contingent on its contribution to maximizing shareholder value as its single overriding purpose, then it is a provisional sort of sustainability that maintains a false sense of separation from the social and environmental systems that it depends upon and impacts.  Paradoxically, the more companies that adopt and stay with the provisional may actually end up hampering large scale progress by trying to perpetuate an inherently unsustainable business paradigm.

The true leaders will be those companies who recognize provisional sustainability as just a stage on a long non-linear and challenging path that at some point requires fundamental transformation at individual, cultural and structural levels.  Authentic sustainability means maintaining the regenerative capacity of all Earth systems and contributing to equitably distributed social wellbeing.

This calls for leaders who will not settle for the provisional, or try to pass it off as the real thing. Authentic sustainability will only evolve and emerge from the provisional when those in leadership positions demonstrate the wisdom, foresight and courage to integrate their highest moral values into their company’s corporate governance, cultures and strategies within an integrated framework of economic, social and environmental goals.

4 Responses to Provisional Sustainability – A Double-edged Sword?

  1. Compartmentalization is a challenge in so many businesses. It’s good to name the challenges of it through the lenses of sustainability. I like the way you make the distinction between provisional and authentic. In a meeting this week I was working on developing a partnership with a nonprofit. We talked about the importance of stretching the boundaries of our definitions of sustainability so we could weave our thinking together. It seems that part of being authentic is also looking for ways to integrate and weave together the systems and people that overlap instead of looking for the boundaries and not crossing them. The morality issue. Well, that’s huge. I commend you for taking it on. I guess as a servant leader there is no way I can approach my work in the business environment without accepting that it is my moral and business responsibility to work towards advancing environmentally, economically and socially just systems in our world AND, they have to be woven together. My moral compass is so much apart of my sustainability DNA that to separate them would be just one more big example of compartmentalization. Thanks for great post.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Polly, for your comments and for your work as a servant leader. I like how you use the words “stretching” and “weaving” when talking about boundaries and peoples’ thinking and perspectives. Your comments and story remind me of how I need to hold my own opinions lightly if I really want to understand another’s perspective with the intention of joining with them to work toward a common purpose. It’ not static or a final destination…it’s a ceaseless practice that takes effort and humility.

  2. Kimball Cartwright says:

    Expanding a corporation’s sense of self-interest to encompass the social and environmental bottom lines is an adaptive challenge and one that grows more urgent with every new success story touting a company’s “green” success. There is genuine overlap between financial returns and addressing social and environmental issues, but what happens when we start to get diminishing returns from our focus on more than one “bottom line”? Under what circumstances would a company ignore an opportunity to increase the financial bottom line where there is cost to the social or environmental bottom line? Your thoughts on authentic sustainability are welcome. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you for your comment, Kimball. As you point out, sometimes social, environmental and economic goals can be mutually inclusive. But after a certain point, tension between these three criteria almost inevitably involve weighing trade-offs. I think management’s time horizon makes a big difference. Also, to what degree they see profit as an end in itself, or primarily as a means to pursue the organization’s mission in accord with a set of values that guide the company’s conduct.

Leave a reply