Sustainable Organisations: No more doing business as usual
Making the transition away from unsustainable ways of organising and doing business is essential if we are to deal with the biggest problems currently facing society.
By Dr Andy Brookes and Professor Matthijs Bal
The failure to address the world’s most pressing global challenges comes at a huge cost in terms of human suffering and destruction of the environment. In 2021 extreme weather events killed more than 1000 people and displaced over a million1. The Covid-19 pandemic has killed more than 6 million people worldwide2. Biodiversity loss is occurring at an increasingly rapid rate, with as many as 2,000 species going extinct every year3. The glaring injustice is that the cost of these unaddressed global problems falls much more heavily on the poorest in society.
Despite the setting of ambitious goals to address these pressing issues (e.g. Paris Climate Agreement, UN Agenda 2030 – Sustainable Development Goals) actual progress has been limited and some problems are continuing to get worse (e.g. carbon emissions, poverty, biodiversity loss). It is 50 years since the Limits to Growth4 report highlighted the urgent need to make the transition to a sustainable society. This transition has simply not taken place and the costs of this ‘failure gap’ – between ambitions and achievement – are now a painful reality.
Organisations across all sectors (government, business, civil society) are a key component of contemporary society but they are also responsible for creating and perpetuating the social problems that cause harm to humans and the environment. Long working hours leads to 700,000 deaths a year worldwide5 and in the UK alone 800,000 workers a year suffer from work-related mental illnesses such as stress, anxiety and depression6. It is estimated that 40 million people are victims of modern slavery, and this generates nearly US$50 billion of annual profits in the developed economies and the EU alone7.
Multinational companies continue to have a huge impact on the environment, with their supply chains generating 20% of the world’s carbon emissions8. But it is not just about the big corporations, SMEs are responsible for more than 60% of industrial pollution in the EU9. Despite the powerful rhetoric of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) much business and organisational activity continues to cause widespread social and environmental harm. John Elkington who developed the idea of the three Ps (people, planet and profit) has recently acknowledged that CSR has essentially failed, and he sought to recall his original paper10.
Why have we failed to make this much-needed transition to sustainable organisations and a sustainable society? We offer four explanations.
Sustainability has become a vague and empty concept
The term has become so commonplace, especially when utilised by business as part of its PR, that it has lost the power to generate meaningful action. There are also different sustainabilities and so far, economic sustainability has always been prioritised at the expense of the human and environmental sustainability. Sustainability is often framed as something in the future, rather than an urgent and pressing problems for today. This allows decisions to be delayed and so for the last 50 years the sustainable ‘can’ has been continually ‘kicked down the road’. The way to achieve the goal sustainability is to deal with present-day unsustainability. It is the unsustainable practices, strategies, and modes of organising that must be transformed if the sustainable transition is to be realised.
Inadequate and shallow diagnosis of the problems
The global sustainability challenges are highly complex and multi-layered. The root causes of the problems are deeply embedded into the architecture of society, and these cannot be resolved with simplistic quick fixes. However, these underlying systemic causes are either not understood or are wilfully ignored. Diagnosis tends to be carried out within the constraints of existing logics and assumptions. The limitations of markets and competition goes unquestioned even when they are failing in front of our own eyes, for example the 2008 financial crash and the current energy price crisis. There is also an unwavering faith in the current ways of managing and doing organisation despite the self-evident limitations of the corporate business model where the pursuit of profit takes precedence over preventing harm to wider society and the environment.
Inability to imagine what sustainable organisations and a sustainable society could actually look like
Business as usual has become hypernormalized – so that we cannot envisage an alternative. It constrains our imagination and prevents us thinking beyond the taken for granted assumptions that shape the way societies, economies and businesses are run. It is absurd that unending growth and consumption are still seen as the way to achieve sustainable transformation – the consumption of finite natural resources at the rate of 112 Empire State buildings every day is patently unsustainable11. Sustainable solutions will therefore require new logics and orientations, for example we should be requiring social and ecological cases for business rather than a business case for sustainability. We will need to ‘think big’ and imagine what sectors and organisations will look like in a post-carbon era, a post-plastic era, a post-modern slavery era etc.
Conventional, top down, managed change does not work for ‘super-wicked’ social problems
Making the transition to sustainable organisations and a sustainable society requires creative, flexible and more collaborative approaches to realising change. The transformation of organisations and society is a political as well as a technical endeavour, and it involves building consensus and movements for change. Those seeking to bring about the wide scale sustainable transition must not be naive about the scale of resistance and the power of those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Big corporations spend US$4 billion a year in lobbying to retain business-friendly laws. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to these grand challenges. Unsustainability is deeply institutionalised across the structures of contemporary society, and it will take time to deal with longstanding injustices and inequalities. Also, transformation will not be realised with technology alone. Despite the development of effective COVID-19 vaccines, the existing social technology has been inadequate to enable fair and equitable distribution across the world (133 doses per 100 population in High Income Countries but only 4 doses per 100 population in Low Income Countries12).
Interested in finding out more about sustainable organisations? Sign up for the series of free online sessions that we are running in August and September. You might also be interested in checking-out our brand-new Sustainable MBA programme.
- Counting the cost 2021 A year of climate breakdown
- WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard
- UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’
- The Limits to Growth
- Long working hours increasing deaths from heart disease and stroke: WHO, ILO
- Health and safety statistics Key figures for Great Britain (2020/21)
- Statistics on forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking
- Multinational companies account for nearly a fifth of global CO2 emissions, researchers say
- SMEs: Key Drivers of Green and Inclusive Growth
- 25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It.
- OVERCONSUMPTION? Our use of the world´s natural resources
- Vaccine apartheid: global cooperation and equity