I am a recent graduate from the Imperial College London Environmental Technology MSc where I specialised in Business and Sustainability. Over the summer I researched a thesis that explored the role of values in supporting sustainability and business success. Following a group discussion about the recent CSR vs. Profit post, the SBToolkit team asked me if I’d like to write a bit about my thesis on this blog.
I thought I would publish a series of excerpts from my research over the next few weeks: the posts will examine what a responsible company is, why companies should be responsible, and offer a wide overview of values-inspired strategies that can deliver business improvement and sustainability gains.
In this first excerpt, let’s consider what a responsible company is, which also requires that we think about what responsibility actually means…
The definition of responsibility is wrapped up in notions of autonomy, accountability and obligation, but at its base are two fundamentals of humanity: compassion and time. Responsibility requires us to prevent others from being harmed, and as a result of our innate fascination with time, moral consensus holds us responsible for an action’s effects, even when the impact is felt only far into the future. Most sustainability definitions follow a similar line of argument.
Sound moral reasoning does not always find its way into practical decision making. Whilst preoccupied with time (beyond our control as it is), we struggle to understand it – to accept our existence as part of a continuum rather than a series of epochal snapshots. Few businesses subscribe to Ray Anderson’s logical stance:
‘Sustainability means survival… What business strategy could be more important than that?’ (Anderson & White, 2009: *l.555)
The ultimate implications of the future being so inescapably full of absolute certainty as well as insoluble doubt, lead us to act as if we could make time stand still – that time beyond our lifetimes has no meaning and therefore no relevance. Arguably true; more likely a denial strategy, given our obsession with what has come before us.
‘Corporation’ derives from corpus, signifying a body (of people): the original purpose was to create a structure that could last in perpetuity, beyond the life of any one individual – companies were designed specifically with sustainability in mind. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony: human civilisation had at its disposal but two tools with which to supervise corporations, the law and economics, disciplines that speak entirely different languages. Law’s vocabulary, concerned with responsibility, rights, fairness, justice, and community, has no place in the lexicon of modern economics (Sharp Paine, 2003).
Having inevitably failed to maintain corporate activity in the service of civilisation’s best interests, a third institution has stepped forward to act as a corporate steward on behalf of humanity: society itself. Either through special interest groups, or wide-spread (and widely spread) public sentiment, society is again finding its voice, determined that corporations, like the rest of us, play by the rules we have set ourselves. Some members of society have taken these beliefs and applied them directly into their own businesses. If “corporations are people” (Romney, 2011), then why shouldn’t they be responsible people?
A responsible company is an organisation on the path towards becoming a sustainable company. It accepts the need for compassion and its associated temporal qualities, and does what it can to minimise its negative impacts and maximise its positive impacts, even though it most likely has too many of the former and not enough of the latter.
Those companies willing to reflect on what lies beyond the next quarterly investor update and take responsibility for both their operations and the people and resources that allow them to operate, face a high-wire that disappears over an infinite horizon, along which they must walk. They must balance current imperatives against future requirements on their journey above a not-so-silent abyss: beneath them financial ruin on one side; immorality, manifested in social and environmental decline, on the other.
Companies of all shapes and sizes across the planet are beginning to take note of the brave leaders up on the high-wire, realising that their actions appear to have benefits, both ethical and economic. Some have even ventured onto it, behind the pioneers, heading for ‘sustainable business’, the 21st century frontier; hoping to find settlers’ riches waiting for them on the far side of the valley of change.
The pioneers realise that such an expectation is unrealistic. The other side might not even be there by the time they get close – certainly, it will have moved. And yet their journey is vital to civilisation: we must explore and innovate new ways of tending to the needs of humanity on our finite vessel, alongside those of our fellow passengers and the ship itself.
In his introduction to The Responsibility Revolution (Hollender & Breen, 2009), Peter Senge describes what it takes for companies and their employees to stay on the high-wire: leaders at every level of a business that never stop questioning who they are and who they want to be, at the same time finding common ground with those who view the world differently; admitting when answers cannot be found to problems that must be addressed; confessing responsibility if they created them; and, realising that there are no final answers or formulas, as the problems or requirements will themselves have changed.
‘Building a responsible company’ he writes, ‘takes, literally, forever’ (l.160).
Sustainability: All That Matters, by award-winning writer and campaigner Chris Goodall argues that building a sustainable society is perhaps the greatest test that the world has ever faced. Today’s generation has borrowed from the future by grabbing prosperity now and imposing the cost on the next generation. Sustainability: All That Matters
Julian Hill-Landolt is an experienced sustainability professional with particular expertise in sustainable business strategies including specialisation in values-based sustainability and an interdisciplinary understanding of environmental law, economics and policy. Julian has recently completed an M.Sc. at Imperial College London in Environmental Technology. he is currently working for Toyota Motor Europe in Brussels. Apart from writing general articles for the Sustainable Business Toolkit, Julian also shares extracts from his masters thesis.