The Struggle for Sustainability
Greenpeace don’t do things by halves do they? Last week’s Ice Climb protest saw 6 climbers scale London’s iconic new Shard skyscraper to bring attention to Shell’s intentions to drill in the arctic. A heck of a lot of effort, but it paid off as the protest got plenty of publicity – some of it scathing, it has to be said – but publicity nonetheless. Whether that publicity (and the sweat required to achieve it) actually changes anything is another matter.
Seeing the huge physical effort required from the protesters to inch their way up the building reminded me of a recent conversation with the CSR manager of a major UK brand (off the record, unfortunately). The word ‘struggle’ passed his lips more than once – the struggle to change sometimes quite small things within his organisation, despite its reputation for CSR.
At a sustainability roundtable I took part in a few weeks ago, Andrew Davison of Newcastle upon Tyne lawyers Muckle LLP talked of the struggle to decide whether to change their legal documentation from the traditional single sided printing to double sided. Andrew said they agonised over such a simple decision.
I’ve often said the biggest barrier to sustainability is just 6 inches wide – the space between our ears. The problem is when you get lots of people together and those 6 inches start to multiply up into what I refer to as ‘institutional inertia’ – the ability of an organisation to push back against change. Institutional inertia is the sustainability practitioner’s worst enemy – the thing that slows everything to a crawl.
Your can use the following tactics to overcome institutional inertia:
- Perseverance: one of the key messages from The Green Executive interviewees was ‘never give up’;
- Cunning: Green Jujitsu says to align sustainability with the existing culture in the organisation – rather than trying to ‘do a Greenpeace’ and shock people into changing their mind – this works with the inertia, not against it;
- Leadership: if the boardroom has bought in then they can be deployed to ‘unstick’ projects when necessary;
- Raise the sights: if you have ambitious well-communicated stretch targets then small decisions will appear to be ‘no brainers’ compared to some big strategic decisions;
- Include stakeholders in the discussion: if you get people together and ask them help work out how (not whether) something can be done, you can gain their buy-in very quickly.
Like scaling a building, sustainability ain’t easy. But then again, that’s half the fun of it.