How do you eat an elephant?

WARNING: ANOTHER LONG POST!

Anthony Kasozi made a great comment on my previous post, encouraging me to reflect further on a couple of significant points from Ray Anderson’s speech last week at Ashridge.

First was Ray’s candid admission that Interface didn’t get everything right along the way, and that the ascent to the top of “Mount Sustainability” is a constantly evolving process of learning and discovery – one that has taken well over a decade just to get half way.

Second was his acknowledgement that companies today are subjected to much greater scrutiny than Interface ever was in the 1990s. As such, there is far more pressure on them to demonstrate meaningful progress – quickly.

Anthony rightly infers that, in presenting Interface as a benchmark for sustainable business practice, consultants and commentators must be careful not to lose sight of the multiple steps, and the immense time and effort, it’s taken for Interface to achieve its pre-eminent position.

On reflection, perhaps the really critical point is that companies embarking on their own journey mustn’t lose sight of this either.

Under pressure to adopt a clear stance on ethical, social and environmental issues, the big temptation is for companies to go for the quick fix – fast-forwarding to the launch of headline-grabbing initiatives and proudly setting out wildly ambitious targets, without reference to a clear, considered, long-term strategy or how these things are to be achieved in practice.

That way accusations of greenwashing lie, and rightly so.

The title of this post asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is, “One mouthful at a time!”

My point? It’s unrealistic in the extreme for companies to think that they can tackle the “elephant” of sustainability in a single sitting. Such things will take time, just as they did at Interface, and so the real issue for organisations is to understand how they can engage in valuable and meaningful conversations with stakeholders along the way.

There are numerous staging posts at which companies can demonstrate meaningful progress and generate goodwill, without needing to resort to short-term fixes.

Imagine this as the first few steps in the process of building a more sustainable business…

  1. Audit – a company starts by conducting an audit of its impacts on society and the environment; even better, it involves customers and suppliers to evaluate the possible long-term effects of inputs and outputs along the value chain.
  2. Focus – based on the results of this audit, the company identifies those areas it considers to be of greatest importance to stakeholders, and where it stands to make the greatest impact (better to do a few things very well than lots of things poorly); even better, it engages with friends and critics to identify and agree the most pressing priorities.
  3. Planning – based on those strategic priorities, the company sets objectives and formulates plans to achieve them; even better, it involves the people responsible for their implementation in a process of co-development.

Ultimately, this is bog-standard best practice in stakeholder engagement – not just presenting people with a fait accompli, but actively involving them in a journey of discovery and, in the process, helping to build belief in and an emotional commitment to the actions that follow.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have all these opportunities to build goodwill and a sense of progress, without stampeding into actions that may have very little impact and end up damaging the brand.

I couldn’t agree more with Anthony when he suggests that we should suspend judgment on past performance, and instead give credit where it’s due for legitimate steps forward. However, this raises a whole other debate on what constitutes a “legitimate” step.

Granted, it’s a subjective judgment. For me, though, legitimacy absolutely has to do with stakeholders being able to see transparently how a step forms part of a clear, consistent and compelling strategy, and how it shows progress towards a goal they recognise as important and relevant.

It’s back to those three magic words of awareness, responsiveness and materiality again – something which requires organisations to engage much more openly and collaboratively than many are used to doing.

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