One of the most famous sci-fi writers of this or any past generation, the late Theodore Sturgeon was often asked on numerous occasions to defend the genre he contributed over 200 stories during a prolific career. His defense was simple: ninety percent of everything is crap. Is this applicable analysis of everything apply to our sustainability efforts?
When it comes to our efforts to create a sustainable economy, a circular environment whereby resources last longer because we use less and recycle more encompassing our grand pronouncements to focus our best efforts and by default, encouraging the companies we work for and invest in and patronize with our dollars to achieve a zero waste goal, is it possible that we can discard 90% of that effort as not even noteworthy? If Sturgeon’s Law is writ true, then yes. We posture and pledge and in the end, rely on the commitments of our corporate and civic leaders to achieve for what we we care deeply. And while we know it is complicated, the targets set forth in too many sustainability document seem suggest it is someone else’s issue.
At the turn of the year, like so many other writers who find themselves with a forum and a calendar, we tend to unpack our predictive skills to lay out the future as we see it for those readers. I did it here where I kept the focus on oil, plastic and organics, three curiously intertwined areas with the most opportunity and what I feel may be the easiest to achieve on this zero waste, circular economy journey. Andrew Winston of the Harvard Business Review penned something similar during the waning days of 2018 titled “The Story of Sustainability in 2018: We Have 12 Years Left” in which he suggests that we are at a pivot point whereby some companies have done something while others have been dragging their executive feet. He calls out corporate behemoths such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Unilever, UPS and Starbucks and very few others as making notable progress. While his missive ends hopeful and optimistic that 2019 will be better, the participants in this global turnaround remain woefully small in numbers.
While in writers, a surfeit of hubris is nothing to be ashamed of possessing in large quantities, among corporate executives and elected officials however, it is often counter to the sustainability success they often say they seek. Hubris it turns out is the unnamed condition that allows a broad application of Sturgeon’s Law. As writers, people like Mr. Winston, whom I do not know, we love our words and hope our carefully crafted verbiage does as intended. Does it inspire, call out the right people, create the momentum needed to the groundswell that has yet to fully take hold?
Mr. Winston, like I have repeatedly suggested, points a well-aimed finger at the decision makers: corporate leadership.
Applying the Law in the Shadow of Hubris
The science and research being done with rigor on this complicated problem of what needs to be done to save the environment is void of hubris. The science surrounding what is happening to our planet is rock solid and increasingly measurable. Sturgeon’s Law swaggers into the conversation in a sort of an after-the-fact way: Science needs funding and capitalism provides it.
However, what capitalism does with that science warrants review. If 90% of the companies do nothing or simply make long-term promises to reach a certain sustainability goal, however abstract those sustainability documents are, the law applies. For example: Leadership announces that the company they govern needs to do something to save the environment. That ‘something’ is often tasked to the public relations group who in turn produces a document for the shareholders, stakeholders and customers to absorb, a sort of “see, we’re doing something” document with a catchy green title and a hashtag. PR, it should be noted is the corporate fire station, not the agents of change and more often than not, without the resources to implement much more than a press release. Is it any wonder why the internal effort at changing the environment at the executive level stalls?
Is capitalism the problem? Perhaps. The real reason companies fail when it comes to sustainability is a short-term focus on a long-term problem. Science has provided the solution. Corporate hubris has ignored those answers. So the law applies. Capitalism can right this wrong. And some have.
To B or Not
Certified B Corp status is a wholly environmentally driven certification “that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
In Oregon, where I reside, there are 116,745 businesses listed as corporations. There are only 188 listed as B Corp companies (the full list is here). If Sturgeon’s Law was applied to this statistic, 98% of the companies operating in the state could be considered, using the language of the Sturgeon’s law, crap. That might be too harsh an assessment considering some do try. Many of these non-B Corp businesses have sustainability documents either with parent companies or as a statement of their own. Is that enough to create the change needed?
While all forms of corporate structures are basically legal and tax entities, no one expects C Corp companies to restructure. However, executives who adopt the tenets of B Corp companies will create a good first step.
According to Bizfilings, B Corps have some specific and notable advantages:
- Differentiation. By offering unique social benefits a B Corp can stand out among competitors.
- Flexibility. Entrepreneurs and investors can pursue social goals as well as a healthy bottom line.
- Protection. Benefit corporations offer the tax benefits and personal liability protection of traditional corporations.
- Competitiveness. A social mission is attractive to many consumers, employees and investors.
- Attracts Talent. More employees are drawn to companies that create a positive impact on society.
- Attracts Investment. Both the for-profit and non-profit worlds view socially responsible companies as an attractive investment case.
- Societal Impact. B Corps offer a positive vision of how to do business in a better way by improving life in their communities.
Working within the parameters of their corporate structures, many businesses have made progress. And it is understandable that this effort requires turning a large ship in a small harbor. However, if Mr. Winston’s “the end is nigh” prediction materializes, we have just over a decade to fix the issue. Im hopeful though. If leadership takes its role seriously, understanding that they are the agent of the change the environment seeks, the force to change our planet on a civic level, and even if they are not a B Corp, it will help. No leader wants the company they helm to be the among the 90%.