The semantics of sustainability

There were two things in the January-February 2011 version of the Harvard Business Review that caught my eye.  Of course, the Porter/Kramer article was one of them.  However, after I finished reading it I got the sense that “Creating Shared Value” (which not coincidentally, is the name of Nestlé’s CSR program that Porter sits on the advisory council of) was basically what sustainability practitioners have been battling to promote for years – that it’s the sweet spot, the synergy that CSR achieves between stakeholder objectives and business objectives, that is what it should be about.  When it boils down to it, the article seemed to be a proposal of a semantic change from the term “CSR” to “CSV”.

However, I think the greatest value that the article brings is Porter’s name – the well-respected father of modern business strategy, whose five forces are taught in business schools across the world – who might finally bring CSR into the mainstream.

And that is not to be underestimated.  Being out and about in London during the past couple of weeks and just having random chats with strangers, I have heard a number of skeptical comments about CSR.

“Isn’t CSR just PR?”

“CSR doesn’t even exist in London and probably never will…. Just take one step into the City.”

Even though the Porter/Kramer article is a bit of a rebranding exercise with a heavier focus on promoting the business case, perhaps it takes a trusted voice to move it to a particular tipping point for mainstream adoption.

The Porter/Kramer article aside, there was also an interesting interview with John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market known for his controversial words and actions.  In one paragraph, he talked about the sustainable seafood program and how they had to start limiting the species they sell.

“You’re either committed to sustainability or you’re not.  You either do it or you don’t.  Sometimes that means you do things that might hurt you in the short term but will underscore your integrity as an organization, which ultimately proves to be valuable in competing with companies that maybe have less commitment to that type of integrity.”

This beginning part of the quote was particularly interesting to me because he painted sustainability in a very absolutist fashion and If sustainability is something you’re committed to or not, then it looks like that most companies are not sustainable, which I would define as all stakeholder needs being met today and in the future, that companies are able to restore and/or improve on what they take away. This further pointed to me that corporate social responsibility is not the same as sustainability, and we’ll have to keep moving towards the latter to be more of the former.

What are your thoughts on Mackey’s quote?  On Porter/Kramer’s article?


2 thoughts on “The semantics of sustainability”

  1. While I think Porter’s concept of shared value makes a lot of sense, I don’t think it would make for a good name change from CSR. For one, I find that people are already getting a little weary from all the eco-jargon thrown at them, so a new term would be a hard sell. I also find the term a bit vague, since “shared value” could be greening your supply chain, or petting your cat. At least CSR is a bit more self explanatory…

    I’d also venture to say that I may be on the same side as Mr. Mackey, but I don’t share his approach. There are very few things in this world that are a stark black and white. I don’t think those organizations that are timidly dipping their toe in the pool of sustainability planning should be blasted for not being green enough. If anything, they should be rewarded for what progress they have made and then encouraged (and expected) to improve. How can we reach a ‘tipping point’ if we scoff at everyone but the top percentile?

  2. I had an interesting chat with someone the other day about the term “corporate social responsibility” and how in the UK it moved from that to “corporate responsibility”, because “social” gave the impression of philanthropy and sort of discounts the environment. However, in the bigger picture I think what is social is attached to the environment.

    And true on your second point! In that black and white sense I don’t think *anyone* is sustainable in the purest sense.

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