This post first appeared in my new column Inspired Protagonist on Greenbiz.com. http://www.greenbiz.com/article/scaling-business-sustainability-why-be-timid
A report released last year by Ceres and Sustainalytics found that while a few U.S. businesses are exhibiting real sustainability leadership, most companies are taking small, incremental steps to address urgent sustainability issues that stand to adversely affect their financial performance, our planet and the economy.
“Given the acceleration of environmental and social challenges globally — floods, droughts and workplace tragedies — most U.S. corporations are not keeping pace with the level of change,” said Mindy Lubber, Ceres president.
Virtually every day we are advised of the increasing and certain damage that global climate change will cause. New statistics on economic inequity in the U.S. continue to detail the profound adverse effects that the concentration of wealth in America is having on our society.
Business leaders live with the knowledge of these facts and but often seem unable to let them affect the decisions they make. I have struggled to come to terms with how this can be. Are we frogs in a slowly warming pan, unable to notice that we are about to be boiled to death? Does the information live in two separate compartments of our mind that refuse to speak to each other?
My conclusion is that because water is not yet flooding our own homes, because we were not in Baltimore to see first hand the anger erupting into violence, and because we still live very comfortable lives that seem to contradict the fact that we are rapidly driving toward an unmovable brick wall — we are unwilling to connect the future with what is required of us in the present.
If you saw a child drowning, nothing would prevent you from attempting to save that life. If smoke appeared in the office next to you, nothing would stop you from searching out the source and calling 911. Yet the challenges we face pose certain disaster at a point in the future that is not on our calendars. They never may appear on our calendar. And because we haven’t scheduled the exact date, time and place that disaster will strike, it somehow, quite mysteriously, is considered to be not quite real.
This failure to act is not unique to social inequity or global climate change. We smoke cigarettes despite knowing they cause cancer; we consume more food than we need despite knowing the extra weight will shorten our lives.
As managers, we are paid to ensure the future health and wellbeing of our companies, and hopefully our customers and employees. Our inability and unwillingness to fulfill that responsibility is not just gravely negligent, but also criminal. We, the managers, executives and stewards of business, will be judged harshly. History will struggle to explain our collective failure.
Is it too late to come to our senses?
Yes and no. Some impacts of climate change are simply too late to stop. The chemicals we’ve poisoned our planet with are now inside our bodies and those of our children. But it’s not too late to limit the damage, to save what are likely to be billions of lives over the next century. It’s necessary that we act to address these challenges with the same sense of urgency we put ourselves under to ensure quarterly earnings expectations, maximize our bonuses and increase market share.