How Can We Live Together?

by Augusto Cuginotti

Ten year-old kids in Copenhagen during COP15 explored a scenario where their family lived in a house with a big garden. Surrounding both was an invisible bubble that prevented everything but energy of the sun to come in and out. Would their families be able to live in such a place? What would happen?

It didn’t take long for them to realize that taking the garbage out would not simply make it disappear and tending to their garden would be very important if they wanted to have vegetables to eat. Today’s globalized world, the size of our population and how we have been dealing with natural resources bring us very close to the scenario those kids explored. We all live in that house and our society hold the same question: how can we live together in such a place?

If your organization is not yet talking about Sustainability, it certainly will. A recent Harvard Business Review points out that it stands as one of the megatrends that have been shaping and impacting the way we will do business during this millennium. Sustainability as a trend goes beyond the rearrangement of government’s powers and growing economies because it requires a more fundamental mind shift, a shift from our long relation to the environment as an externality. The industrial revolution helped to consolidate and speed up a mindset of make-use-waste and for years resources seemed abundant and waste was easily handled.

Society is receiving messages that this old mindset and current reality do not work well together anymore. Understand sustainability today is both a business opportunity and an alignment of doing good and doing well, of creating value for both shareholders and the society. This mind shift is also a transition in our practices and businesses. A company and a society cannot become sustainable in a leap, but the understanding of our natural and social system can give us the ability to define and strategically move towards a sustainable future.

For more than 25 years the civil society has been working to define a supportive framework that can both be scientifically robust and practically applicable. An exploration that started in the 80’s by a group of scientists in Sweden became that framework. A set of four sustainability principles that incorporates all the general aspects of sustainability and are clear and direct to inform decision-makers is known today as a Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD). Also known as the Natural Step Framework, the FSSD is continuously researched by the international NGO known by the same name.

The FSSD is supporting organizations and communities around the world to understand the core of sustainability, to support systematic planning and to make sense of the many tools and concepts on the field. Some companies are working to combine the short and medium term benefits with the long-term imperative of sustainability. Low-investment actions based on substituting materials, reducing consumption or rethinking design are saving costs and generating new products and services. Companies are saving up to 38% in one year, small businesses up to 66%.

Enough reason to invest some time looking at the impact of sustainability in your company? There is more: imagine how the next generation will deal with it. What is likely to happen to your customers, employees and regulatory governmental bodies in the future? The importance of both today’s bottom line and a strategy that allows the company to be resilient in the future indicates that incorporate sustainability strategically is good business. Some companies pioneered and harvested the benefits of it: Nike, Rohm and Haas, IKEA and Scandic Hotels are among those who incorporated strategic sustainable development using the support of FSSD.

Executives and communication professionals that are taking sustainability seriously sometimes get lost on trendy actions that lead to an expensive marketing campaigns later interpreted as greenwashing by the media and civil society organizations. A big company in Europe recently was targeted by NGOs accused of greenwashing: the lack of understanding of what strategically means to incorporate sustainability generated a bad communication strategy.

As a megatrend of the millennium, more and more people are learning about sustainability every day, some of them learning from the organizational actions itself and therefore propagating the story of that brand together with the sustainability concept. Successful companies working with the FSSD are opting for the world of mouth of their commitment and innovation towards sustainability instead of a big marketing campaign exploring the yet not fully understood concept. One example is Max Hamburgers in Sweden – HR and Sustainability Director Pär Larshans says that “not a penny” went for advertisement, but communicating their vision and winning stories brought them international recognition and coverage.

Organizations that are doing good also communicate well by innovating in two ways: by strategically incorporating sustainability in their communications plan and by exploring innovative ways of spreading their message. According to the expert in communications for sustainability Jennifer Nichols, a good strategic communication plan successfully incorporates sustainability when looked through the lens of the FSSD. She also points out that innovative ways to communicate sustainability have been developed by using storytelling, community-based social marketing and social media.

This article was published on the issue number 19/2010 at the magazine – where you can download both the article and the whole issue.