Monday, September 1, 2014

"Corporate Sustainability" and "Corporate Environmental Programs": a difference?

A colleague recently asked if I saw any difference between "corporate sustainability" and "corporate environmental programs." 
I almost laughed.  "Of course," I said with dismissive certitude.
My colleague waited patiently.  Apparently, I was supposed to elaborate.  Which I couldn't do easily.  So after tripping down some blind verbal alleys and dead-end streets filled with logical potholes, I meekly had to admit that I couldn't clearly draw a distinction.  But despite my inability to articulate the difference, I felt certain that one exists. This post catalogs the result of the extended and at times messy wrestling match I've had with myself as I've tried first to understand and second to articulate what distinguishes the two concepts.

Step One:  A distinction without a difference?
Initially, I wondered if sustainability and environmental programs are merely just two terms for the same thing.  I concluded that for many people, that may be the case.  And that's not a problem, as long as everyone in the same dialog thinks the same thing.  It's sort of like ordering a polish sausage, when pointing at what is actually a bratwurst.  It probably doesn't matter, until you are at a Chicago Bears football game, where there is not only a real difference, but also hot-links, foot-longs, braedworst and blood sausage on the grill.  At that point, you risk serious linguistic confusion, as well as the chance of holding up the line, which really can have bad results not limited to verbal abuse (of you.)  So I'm essentially arguing that audience matters when one uses jargon, and therefore so does precision of language. 

At deeper level, I have come away believing that, even if the accepted parlance doesn't draw a distinction, it might be helpful to do so as the broader discipline of "Corporate sustainability" evolves.  Much of the work may alread be done--sort of the way that Inuits (allegedly) have 27 words for snow in its various manifestations, and that Soldier Field sausage vendors probably offer 27 different types of grilled, stuffed meat.   But I also believe that many firms are engaging in activities that can be cleanly divided into separate categories covered by these two terms--even if the firm itself hasn't expressly elected to call each group by a discrete name.

Step Two: "Twin Sons of Different Mothers"?
If we agree that there is a difference, is it important enough to define?  What if, for example, the distinction is merely one of genesis: "environmental programs" originate in external-facing business units (environmental affairs; public relations) while sustainability programs are authored by strategic/operational departments?  Aren't these really the same species of activities, just with different parentage? 

It occurred to me that the two terms could cover programs that at first glance look identical and in many ways behave the same way.  Sure, they are different entities, and within the corporate collective, borne of different initiatives--but don't they ultimately meet a similar if not identical standard?  For example, "corporate sustainability" programs might refer to those that work to reduce energy usage or water consumption, while environmental programs might encompass corporate sponsorship of select "save the (name your plant/animal/exotic locale here)" campaigns, Adopt-a-Highway programs or employee volunteerism to clean up local parks.

I begin to look more closely at the full complement of environmental initiatives undertaken by a variety of firms. My thesis was that all activities undertaken by the enterprise seek to achieve (at least perceived) environmental benefit--naive, perhaps, but I wanted to proceed from an objective starting point and thereby perhaps insolate myself from confirmation bias.

Step Three:  I expected them to shake out along a continuum between two extremes that would themselves become self-defining.  But the result was interesting, albeit surprising.  Activities did self-separate, but they fell into two buckets: those that have real environmental benefit, but also measureable "bottom line" impact; those that were optical in nature only, and usually the result of a afterthought culture ("we have to do something...") that focuses only on low-hanging fruit

Step Four: How to spot the difference
Experienced birders (I'm not one), tell me that there are numerous species that I have no hope of differentiating at 100 yards, but that they easily can.  With one eye closed.  At dusk.  Environmental programs include risk management and legal compliance, as well as public relations campaigns and--dare I say it?--greenwashing.  They lack coordination, strategic focus and any deep-rooting in either the corporate strategy or corporate ethos.  Put more simply, they are largely reactive and, most importantly, motivated by external factors.  These can include regulatory compliance or pressure from stakeholders (shareholder initiatives, social or environmental justice activists, consumer boycotts, etc.)

Here are the key defining features, and simple litmus test questions:
1.  Impact of discontinuation.  If the firm curtails the program, does it materially impact daily operations and/or the balance sheet?  ("Yes" for corporate sustainability; "no" for EPs)
2.  strategic versus complusory.  Is the program part of a coordinated, company-wide effort that has the ability to generate measurable financial benefit and the potential of paying dividends in the form of addition cost savings (to say nothing of profits) through non-target activity adoption and unintended innovation?  Or is more of a box-checking exercise--for example, 90% waste-stream diversion as required by municipal law?
3.  Genesis/motivation. Making profit versus avoiding loss.  Is the firm engaging in the activity specifically to improve operations, reduce inputs and/or waste and therefore improve financial performance?  Or simply avoiding regulatory sanction or financial penalty?
4.  holistic versus ad hoc.  Is the activity in question part of a coordinated, integrated program that may take years to realize its full benefit?  Or is it the result of either a decentralized, or short-term effort conceived or executed without regard to a broader corporate mandate?
5.  Proactive versus Reactive.  Is the program the result of anticipitory, forward-planning?  Or a response to an external force (statute/regulation/special interest)?

Ultimately, this post may be offering novel definitions of these terms.  But I don't see them as concrete definitions. One reader remarked that what fit my definition of an "environmental program" (a ), was actually achieving results more concordant with a "sustainability program."  I agree with his assessment.  Therefore, I would suggest that there are many initiatives that start out as ad hoc programs, but that evolve into sustainability practices.  To this extent, it seems to me that environmental activities are, like the entities they seek to protect, largely organic and dynamic.

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