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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2003 : Single Bottom Line Sustainability

Single Bottom Line Sustainability

Playing to Win

Forget the notion of sustainability as a corporation's moral obligation. That's not how it plays the game.

by Paul Gilding

G’day. I help large companies to increase their profits and to grow. I used to work with Greenpeace—chasing nuclear-armed warships in rubber boats and plugging up toxic waste discharge pipes. It’s quite a change. I thought I’d use this first column to explain the shift.

First, some background. I didn’t finish high school. I’ve worked as a builder’s laborer, a union organizer and served in the Australian military. I’ve spent more than 20 years as an activist, from high school student protests at the age of 14 to a stint as head of Greenpeace International (1993 to 1994).

In 1995 I founded Ecos Corporation, a company dedicated to driving social change by helping companies create value through sustainability. And I’m happy to say that seven years later, we’re well-received and successful. Our clients have included large global corporations like DuPont and Ford and Australian companies like Insurance Australia and ANZ Bank.

As you can imagine, not all of my mates at Greenpeace were thrilled by my shift. Some thought I was selling out. Others thought, “We wouldn’t want to do it, but I guess someone has to.” So why did I want to? I’m a pragmatist, and starting Ecos was a very pragmatic decision. The decision was based on a heavy dose of reality. Two doses, actually.

* Reality dose #1: We’re in deep trouble. Globally, the environment is in dramatic decline, human suffering is endemic, and the signposts all point in the wrong direction. We need to turn things around and we have to do it fast.

* Reality dose #2: Capitalism won the ideological battle over economic systems, and it won big-time. My response: Deal with it! Corporations are where the power and money is. If we want to make global change happen fast, we’ve got to get the money and the power working for us, not against us.

I’m constantly confronted by the paradox that most people like capitalism because of the wealth, products and services it delivers, but dislike and distrust corporations. Most people live in this paradox. Some activists live only in the latter camp. They think we need to bury corporations, or ban them. This righteous indignation comes at a high price—it won’t work. We need at least some big corporations working with us or we will fail. Personally, I’ll take turning things around over feeling morally superior any day.

Not that some corporations don’t deserve to go the way of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and be put out of business. Some do. But we’ll come to ExxonMobil in another column.

The most common question I’m asked is, “So what makes you think this will work?” The first part of my answer is that I don’t know if it will, but it’s the best idea I can think of right now. The main reason I believe it might work is that corporations are like sheep. They are forever singing the importance of innovation, competition and being out in front, but in reality most of them play “follow the leader.” Every time a corporation shows true leadership by demonstrating a new way to create value, you’ll hardly have time to blink before 50 other companies are lined up trying to do the same thing. This is why the market works. We should be grateful because it means we don’t have to get all corporations to make a commitment to operationalizing sustainability. We only need a handful of leaders to demonstrate that it creates real and measurable value, and a corporate stampede will follow.

Which brings me to my second point. Value. Nothing concentrates a corporate executive’s mind like the prospect of value creation. They approach it with a single-mindedness of purpose that would make a yogi jealous.

I draw an obvious conclusion from this. So long as sustainability is pitched to corporations as a moral obligation, it’s dead in the water. It has to be shown to actually create value.

That’s the name of the game. In future columns we’ll examine how to play it.

Paul Gilding (paul.gild is the founder and CEO of Ecos Corporation, which provides strategic advice to corporations on how to create value through sustainability.

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