On June 3, 2009, the day before their official graduation, 400 Harvard MBA’s took an unofficial oath to “serve the greater good”, “act with the utmost integrity” and guard against “decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions, but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.”
Is a values-driven agenda re-entering the workplace?
In 2001, Enron kicked off a two-year run on financial fraud (WorldCom, Adelphia, Tyco, Global Crossing, etc.) which gave a good jolt to business and consumer confidence. Accenture’s brand took a beating but other than that we seemed to return fairly quickly to ‘business as usual’.
That is until 8 years later, a financial crisis of epic proportions in conjunction with global climate change tied to a lack of responsible business oversight has even business students re-committing themselves to just what it means to be doing good business.
It may seem idealistic or even naïve for students to be taking this unsanctioned oath yet holding the business education community accountable may have greater implications for business management. A set of shared values is one that helps define a profession. As business students enter one of the worst hiring environments in decades, ethical decision-making is driving them to demand new approaches to shareholder value and 21st century company leadership.
Day 3 – I’ve been convinced. We, the sustainability industry, are growing up. It’s not pretty and we don’t know what our collectively and future-defined selves will be, but we’re definitely in it for the rest of our adult lives. We’re not going away. But there’s a few things that we need to think about as we approach adulthood:
1) Stop being so defensive. No industry was born perfect. Every new sector had to go through the growing pains of discovering what they stood for and what they didn’t stand for. Sustainability is no different. So accept imperfection and keep charging forward. We will never be pure – let’s own that and figure out how to make it work for us.
2) Embrace our humanity, but let’s be a little more ruthless. We’re beginning to uncover mainstream acceptance for the financial rationale of doing good. We love the warmth of what we’re doing but if others need to hear facts – let’s stick to them to progress the industry. We like rainbows and unicorns but fairy tales have ceased to dominate Wall Street.
3) One size does not fit all. If sustainability is the umbrella industry (think “high tech” 20 years ago), then maybe we need to actively promote the many paths to sustainability that people, products and businesses can choose. As fair trade, sustainably made, clean energy and other sustainable endeavors mature, evangelizing each unique practice will be made easier and the desire to analyze and compare the value of each over the other will fall away.
4) Re-invent our messaging. Flip the framework. As marketers we are failing miserably in moving the adoption curve. Granted the message is as only strong as the product but we must work more closely to strategically effect education and behavior change.
This year’s conference may be coming up a bit shorter on the oxytocin front but it is clear that the energy and enthusiasm is still in full supply.
Day 2 of the Sustainable Brands conference down in Monterey and there is relatively little new news. Well, at least no new revelational news. I don’t know if this is a bad thing or just the status of an industry going through natural growing pains, but I am disappointed by the lack of provocative discussions (perhaps its the format?). We are still trying to figure out how to simplify the consumer message of what is inherently an incredibly complex thing and still acting as if transparency and accountability were new concepts (Enron anyone?).
Perhaps what I’m reacting to is our inability to recognize that we are stuck and that we need to flip our perspectives, re-frame the questions and acknowledge that what we haven’t figured out is a serious barrier to adoption. Aren’t we supposed to be ingenious, inspired innovators down at this conference? Admittedly, we come to this conference for the comfort and inspiration that comes from working with others of like-mindedness. But perhaps we are guilty of being lazy, expecting each other to do the heavy brain work instead of basquing in our vacuum of do-gooder intent. But thus far we haven’t admitted to ourselves that we’re stuck and there has been no frank “panel discussions” that confront us on this issue.
It is not all terribly mediocre. There have been a few interesting conversations and themes in the conference which does mean that some progress is getting made. There were a few, just a few, who touched on the field of legal and financial mechanisms as a means of regulatory approaches to governing market-based solutions – thank you Jay Coen Gilbert of B Lab and Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets. And the theme of low impact via local consumption (CSA’s) and local investment (Slow Money) came up as more evolved mechanisms for engagement.
I guess the good news is that despite the fact that 52% of all “green” special issue magazines sell less than their standard counterparts, there are no indicators, as presented by Chris Coulter of Globescan, that we are reverting back to pre-sustainability mindsets. In fact, perhaps despite our marketing attempts, there is very strong evidence that sustainable operating practices are in fact driving brand equity which means the market is responding, if only subtly.
But the blush of romance feels like its dwindling and perhaps this emerging trend is hitting its difficult teen years. Like the .com era did. Which is not bad news it just means that we’re in the throes of the reality of hard work which never feels very sexy or warm.