Lack of business leadership places the whole sustainability movement at risk

Lack of business leadership places the whole sustainability movement at risk

Executives need to transcend their fear of being attacked, while NGOs and the media also need to rethink their approach

  • Mature businessman sitting under desk

    If anyone, and particularly a man, takes a step outside of his comfort zone, and gets immediately criticised, he is likely to retreat. Photograph: Alan Powdrill

    There is a fascinating dynamic which is not always well understood, which is that the more power you have, the more fragile and vulnerable you become.

    I was thinking about this in regard to companies being more open about their activities in the field of sustainability.

    They may make billions of pounds and determine the lives we live and the products and services we consume, but they are generally terrified of anyone saying a bad word against them.

    That’s part of the reason why they have a phalanx of lawyers and PR advisors at their beck and call.

    Many business leaders talk the talk abut the importance of transparency, but when I meet them, I am struck by how fearful they are about publicising their work in areas such as supply chain management and social impact.

    Is that because of what Unilever CEO Paul Polman told me, which is that “business leaders do not like to promise on things they are not sure they can deliver on, so they would rather work discretely on projects?”

    Or is it because they are personally scared of being attacked by NGOs or the media if they stick their heads above the parapet, and their brands being damaged in the process.

    I was recently speaking to the director of a major retailer who relayed that one bad experience with an NGO and the press had made the company wary of publicising any of its sustainability activities, even though it was proud of what was being achieved.

    This reticence poses great risks to the sustainability movement. In the last week, two senior global figures independently told me they are increasingly worried that not enough CEOs are speaking out and that there is too much reliance amongst sustainability professionals on the campaigning style of Unilever’s Polman.

    One said: “We need more business leaders to take a public stance on this issue. Polman is out on his own and if something negative happens to Unilever, then people will pin the blame on his Sustainable Living Plan, and the whole movement could be critically damaged.”

    Beyond this, the corporate sector needs desperately to rebuild its trust with society and that can only be achieved through transparency and holding up its actions to scrutiny.

    So it is absolutely essential for companies to be more proactive. This necessitates not only a change in their own behaviour but perhaps also a different approach from other players in society, such as NGOs and the media.

    To help make this happen, it’s helpful to understand the dynamics of change and what better place to look then in the area of personal relationships. I was taught that if your partner takes an emotional risk by sharing information that puts them in a vulnerable position, the most important initial response is to recognise the courage in doing this, even if you personally feel it’s no big deal.

    That’s because if anyone, and particularly a man, takes a step outside of his comfort zone, and gets immediately criticised, he is likely to retreat. If this happens a couple more times, he may well give up altogether.

    When I explained this process to the director of the major retailer I mentioned earlier, his eyes lit up and he said that was exactly how he was feeling.

    But the point is that understanding this dynamic should not be used as an excuse for inaction, but as a way to transcend it.

    That’s because true leadership in this space is to step out into the limelight, knowing full well there are snipers out there. The best protection is to have belief in what you are doing and personally embody the change. So far, only Polman and a handful of others like Ian Cheshire and Jochen Zeitz have shown the courage to put their necks on the line in this way.

    Where for instance is Marc Bolland, the chief executive of Marks and Spencer? Behind the scenes, I am told he is doing a great deal, meeting this week with Nick Clegg to advise ahead of Rio+20, challenging his peers at Davos on sustainable consumption and addressing his top 1000 suppliers in April on Plan A.

    But apart from his support for the company’s new clothes swapping scheme, we have not seen him take a leadership role on the public stage.

    Given the company’s reputation and history, he would do well to stand side by side with Polman, publicly challenging short-term investors and promoting political change.

    So what about the role of both NGOs and the media? First of all, let’s be absolutely clear. The primary purpose of both is to hold businesses to account, and not to give them an easy ride, especially when much of their current behaviour is pushing us ever closer towards the edge of an ecological and social precipice.

    So it’s also absolutely right that companies whose activities are clearly greenwash, or who are secretly lobbying governments to prevent progressive change, should be exposed. That’s why I so respect Guardian colleagues such as George Monbiot, as well as organisations such as Greenpeace who bring these disgraceful behaviours to the public gaze.

    But there is also some truth that NGOs and the media can sometimes be lazy and only go after companies who put information in the public domain, rather than taking the time and resources to dig deeper to expose laggards who hide in the shadows and do nothing at all.

    So I wonder whether civil society groups and the media do need to rethink their approach, by recognising when progress is being made, even whilst at the same time acknowledging that much more needs to be done.

    From the NGO perspective, we are already seeing how groups like Greenpeace are recognising the importance of working in collaboration with companies, whilst at the same time exposing unacceptable behaviour.

    It’s an extremely difficult balance to get right; ensuring their integrity is kept intact and they do not become co-opted by big business.

    But a question on my mind is should the media be taking a more nuanced approach? I continue to dismiss the bleatings of executives who complain that their press releases on sustainability issues are routinely ignored, and for good reason, since they normally do not add up to a row of beans.

    But what of those seeking to make a genuine contribution. Well, the creation of Guardian Sustainable Business is an attempt to recognise those businesses that are moving into a leadership position, whilst remembering that even these tend to be taking only iterative steps and need to become much bolder in fundamentally rethinking their business models.

    I personally think that while there is some truth in the old saying that good news does not sell newspapers, I increasingly believe that people do respond to inspiring news. With the constant tsunami of bad news out there, we do need also to hear many more stories of hope and of courage.

    What seems abundantly clear to me is that we are heading towards a time of unprecedented risk, and it is therefore critical that every single business, NGO and media company needs to stand back and reflect on how they can best contribute to the task of preventing us from tipping over the edge of that looming precipice.

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