The 6 Ways Business Leaders Talk About Sustainability
Written by John Elkington, Harvard Business Review
Capitalists focus on the financial returns from capital invested, and most business leaders prioritize issues that are financially material. For anyone with a pension linked to market performance, that is a good thing. But this single-minded focus can be a major problem when it comes to tackling slow-building, systemic challenges, like global warming, that could take down not just supply chains but, over time, entire economies.
No accident, then, that we increasingly hear discussion about “framing” in boardrooms and C-suites. Political analyst George Lakoff, notably in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, has shown how the way we frame such challenges shapes our reasoning and priorities much more than most of us recognize. Crucially, he concludes that our unconscious mental frames “shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.”
The message for business leaders, as for social change agents: To change our frames is to change the way we perceive, prioritize and invest time, effort and money. “Reframing,” Lakoff tells us, “is social change.”
A critical first step is to understand the different mental and political frames currently in play. My colleagues and I see at least six main frames at work in the sustainable business space. Each has its strengths and limitations. Having a clearer grasp of these mental models can help business leaders to work with others, both inside and outside their organizations, to build more sustainable businesses.
The Resources Frame
This is the basic frame, tracking back to studies like 1972’s Limits to Growth. The forecast is often dire, with population growth eventually overwhelming available resources and the resilience of key ecosystems. The focus of people using a resources frame to understand sustainability is often on waste reduction and technological innovation. For example, in the 1990s, leading businesses like 3M adopted concepts like eco-efficiency, focusing on saving and making money through the better management of materials, energy and waste. Today, we see growing interest in new business benchmarks and in potential breakthrough materials and forms of energy.
Challenges of this frame: It is tempting to imagine that such technology will solve all our resource problems, but shoehorning billions of extra people onto the planet must have consequences. Indeed, anyone looking at trajectories in such areas as water security and soil fertility knows that key systemic problems continue to outrun our attempts to rein them in.
The Time Frame
Time is fundamental to all sustainability frames, with capitalism seen as myopic at a moment when key challenges demand much longer time frames. This point was underscored by Unilever CEO Paul Polman when he courageously told short-term investors who did not support sustainability efforts not to buy his company’s shares.
Pull back far enough, and it is clear that many key challenges have gone exponential since 1950—among them loss of species, global warming and ocean acidification. Scientists now say that we have moved into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, the first where the health of the planet is literally in the hands of a single species, our own.
Challenges of this frame: Successful business leaders must evolve a much more expansive view of time, no easy task. One way to expand your thinking is to look to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, whose time horizon is 2030; think of them as a purchase order from the future. And talk with your twenty- and thirty-something colleagues, asking them how they see the future agenda.
The Value Frame
While many environmentalists used to see business as the enemy, the emergence of triple-bottom-line thinking from 1994 helped surface new thinking about value creation. Since then, thousands of companies have embraced the “People, Planet and Profit” agenda — from firms in the B Corporation movement to large clothing companies like PUMA. Firms like these have created tools like Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) statements and Social Return on Investment (SROI) to capture a more complete picture of their businesses.
Meanwhile, Al Gore’s Generation Foundation sees sustainability as the new engine of economic growth. Huge market valuations are now linked to the delivery of global sustainability goals, such as the $12 trillion dollars a year markets forecast by 2030 by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission. In parallel, accountants and CFOs are learning to attach a financial value to natural resources they previously thought of as free, such as the benefits provided to agriculture by insect pollinators.
Challenges of this frame: Be wary of pricing everything that moves in the environment and focusing too much on costs. Expand the focus from today’s business case for action to tomorrow’s business models. Help colleagues see the sustainability challenge as potentially the biggest opportunity of their lifetimes.
The Design Frame
For decades, some thought leaders have sought to reframe our growing unsustainability as a design problem. How can innovative thinkers break out of the “extract, make, buy, throw away” paradigm of modern consumerism? This group of thinkers included people like geodesic architect Buckminster Fuller, Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog, and cradle-to-cradle and “Circular Economy” thinkers like Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart.
More recently, there has been Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown, modeling 100 climate change solutions, alongside our own work on Carbon Productivity—exploring how we can best invest increasingly limited carbon budgets for environmental, social and economic returns. Another example includes biomimicry—using lessons Nature learned over 3.8 billion years of evolution to find solutions for climate change.
Challenges of this frame: Design is crucial, but market acceptance will depend on economics and politics. Work to get those right, too.
The Abundance Frame
Based on the thinking of people like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, this frame embraces “10X” exponential change, rather than the current preference for 1% or 10% incremental change. This is the world of exponential (breakthrough) solutions to exponential (breakdown) challenges, with pioneers including the XPRIZE Foundation, Singularity University, and Google’s X facility. This worldview is powerfully shaped by excitement around the potential of emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, and synthetic biology.
Challenges of this frame: There will almost certainly be unintended consequences to any major breakthrough, with even exponential entrepreneurs like Elon Musk expressing growing concern about the societal implications of AI and robotics.
The Moral Frame
Whether in politics, finance, or business, there is growing concern that many leaders have lost their moral compass. Ever since Adam Smith wrote his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, preceding The Wealth of Nations, we have known that unregulated capitalist values can be destructive. Turn the moral spotlight on other frames, and it is clear that the Moral Frame encompasses them all. For example, in the Resources Frame there is the moral tension between whether the Earth’s bounty is ours to exploit as we please, or whether Nature has its own rights. In Abundance Frame, the $64 trillion question is: “abundance for whom?”
Challenges of this frame: At a time when some MBA courses still treat business ethics as a sort of sheep-dip treatment for students, an elective, be careful not to sound moralistic or missionary. And regularly test your moral compass readings with stakeholders likely to be affected by the outcomes of your decisions.
In summary, a key skill for all of us driving change is to recognize the frames shaping other people’s worldviews and priorities—and, equally important, to understand and evolve our own frames. Ultimately, the psychology and cultural anthropology of change will be every bit as important as the politics and economics.
Originally published by Harvard Business Review on October 17, 2017