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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2003 : Single Bottom Line Sustainability

Single Bottom Line Sustainability

Darwinian Sustainability

Companies should embrace sustainability not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it will help them defeat their competition.

by Paul Gilding


Sometimes I feel like starting a campaign against corporate social responsibility. At a minimum, I’d like to see the sustainability community stop using those words. The language is all wrong and, most importantly, it doesn’t work very well. Sure it encourages platitudes by business leaders who spout the right words, but then they can hardly say they’re against corporate responsibility—can they?

The problem with the “corporate social responsibility” approach is that it grades companies for goodness. That’s a familiar model—kids everywhere are taught to behave themselves, or else—only here it’s applied to the grown-up world. Pledge to abide by the following standards of socially responsible corporate performance and be punished when you stray. Are you a “good” company (i.e., do you join the right organizations, do you sign the right sets of principles)? Do you go to church on Sunday (i.e., do you attend the right conferences)? Do you confess when you misbehave (i.e., do you publish reports pointing out your failings)?

I’m not against any of these things per se—not against going to church and not against publishing sustainability reports either. These are good things to do and focus our attention. But I don’t want companies behaving responsibly because they’re afraid of being caught, like bad little boys and girls. Sure, when they’re getting started, companies, like children, may need this kind of motivation. But what about when they grow up? Finger-wagging isn’t going to get companies to embrace sustainability with sincerity, let alone any real sense of urgency or speed. I want companies to embrace sustainability because it will help them whip their competition. I want sustainability to be Darwinian.

Take oil, for example. What’s going to drive BP to take stronger action on climate change? The fear of criticism by NGOs or the prospect of gaining market share from Exxon Mobil because people think BP is a better company to work for or buy from? What’s going to be more effective at driving BP to invest more in solar: the media getting on the company’s case because its solar business is only a fraction of its oil investments or learning that the company gets better returns and faster growth in solar than in oil?

If sustainability is going to take hold in the corporate sector in a big way—and boy do we need it to—it will be because it starts producing big profits and more growth for companies. It won’t happen because of an abstract executive commitment to something called “corporate social responsibility.” It will happen because sustainability is a great business strategy. And it is.

Every company I talk to confirms that their employees increasingly want to work for a company that’s doing something genuinely useful—they want their work to matter. So they want to work for companies that have a clear sense of social purpose. Attracting the best people, and then having them highly motivated, drives growth. This is why sustainability is even slowly being picked up by service-based sectors like insurance and finance.

Smart companies take a look at climate change and see the writing on the wall, even in Bush’s America. We’re going to have highly efficient cars that use less and less gasoline, and then no gasoline at all. The auto companies that work out how to drive the market in that direction more quickly, and how to ride that wave, will grow faster. They’ll make more money—and good luck to them. Those that fail to do so will fall by the wayside. Hey, that’s what makes capitalism the cuddly creature it is. Winners win and losers lose. Creative destruction at work.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the world is going to transform around
sustainability. In 50 years, we’ll have cars that are safe and pollution-free, power
stations on our rooftops, cleaner and healthier food, cities that work (well, that may be stretching it a bit), and a whole lot more. Is all that going to come about because it’s the right thing to do? Nope. It’s going to happen because the most powerful institution on the planet—business—will take us there by combining relatively decent values with the pursuit of profit and growth.

Sure, plenty of today’s companies don’t get it. Many of them never will. We know who they are and we’ll enjoy watching them decline into the trash bin of history and tomorrow’s business-school case studies.

I don’t want to feel holier than them. I just want to see them go broke.

Bring on the market, and bye-bye losers.



Paul Gilding (paul.gild ing@ecoscorp.com) 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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