Much has been written on the "business case for sustainability". These papers argue that considering social and environmental impacts, once dismissed as "externalities" by conventional business logic, can actually help an enterprise better identify costs, risks and opportunities for innovation. In fact, I have written a series about a detailed process for developing such a case. But this may only be half the story.
Flipping the Conversation
The business case for sustainability attempts to create an economic argument for businesses to care about their social and environmental impact beyond what regulations require.
It is as if a hard-nosed CEO stands up to the environment and the poor and, looking up briefly from her quarterly earnings report, says, "Why should I care? How could thinking more than I have to about the environment and social impact possibly help my company?"
The answer that follows is the famed business case for sustainability. And oft-repeated lines like "Business can't succeed in societies that fail." And Thoreau: “What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
The desired resulting logic: we can't run our business without taking care of the environment and serving our community.
But what if we turned the dialogue around. What if we imagined environment and the poor addressing business and asking the same question: "Why should we care? How can business possibly help to protect and restore ecosystems and safeguard human rights?"
What if we turned the dialogue around? What if we imagined environment and the poor addressing business and asking the same question: "Why should we care? How can business possibly help to protect and restore ecosystems and safeguard human rights?"
The answer that would follow would be new ground: the sustainability case for business. And the corollaries would follow: "societies cannot succeed with businesses that fail." And "what is the use of a tolerable planet, if you don't have a house?"
The desired resulting logic: we really can't take care of the environment and create livable, prosperous communities without business.
In other words, the business case says that industry can engage while still remaining profitable and competitive. The sustainability case says that industry must engage or a prosperous, equitable, and ecologically healthy future is out of reach.
And what are the details of the sustainability case for business? More on that later.