During the past decade, many people have become increasingly curious about what sustainability truly means for business. My interest began when I had learned about a U.S. carpet manufacturer that had become a world leader in sustainability practices after it had implemented a long-term plan towards becoming 100% sustainable. As a result of this company’s ongoing success, I wondered what the barriers were in preventing other businesses from starting their own sustainability programs. After reviewing the results of a recent sustainability survey, one of the findings surprised me. Apparently many of the respondents believed that there was still a problem with getting the message out about the benefits of developing sustainability plans. This led me to my central question: why are business leaders not getting the message about sustainability? Could it be the that media is not getting the word out or is it because business itself needs to lead?
In December 2011, the research firm, Globescan, and the think tank, SustainAbility, released a survey for the United Nations Environment Program of 642 global leaders from the business, academia, non-governmental organization (NGO) and government sectors where 65% of the respondents answered that “low awareness of sustainability as a business imperative” acted as a barrier for businesses to begin, let alone fully embrace, sustainability programs Although this finding comes from only one survey, the results showed that 71% of academia and 58% of business leaders admitted there was a lack of awareness. This revelation gave me enough reason to explore the issue further, and to ask just who made up this 58%?
No more TAKE, MAKE, WASTE – Ray Anderson, InterfaceFLOR
The idea of sustainability first started to gain traction in the public sphere back in the late 1980s. Since then, I have viewed all kinds of traditional and online media about subjects such as climate change and green washing but also noticed there was not as much being said about sustainability. Maybe these business leaders have confused the concept of sustainability with the arguments of whether or not climate change is man-made (often made contentious and politically divisive in the media), or they may have linked it with the separate issue of “green washing” and as a result, have tuned out the message. Or could it be that these business leaders just do not understand the true concept of sustainability? At its core, embedding a sustainability program in a business is about reducing costs and creating growth to meet new market demand that should help increase profits and shareholder value and yes, most importantly, it is also about protecting the health of the planet. So, is the business community itself discussing this important issue, and if so, then why are these 58% not paying attention?
The story that I read in a business journal, which started my interest in sustainability, began in 1994 when Ray Anderson, the CEO for Interface, Inc. decided that his carpet manufacturing company was going to become 100% sustainable by the year 2020. Anderson made his decision while reading the book, The Ecology of Commerce, after which he concluded that he would do all on his part to stop plundering the earth. His plan was a difficult one, considering that his company manufactured a petroleum-based product. However, through determination and a lot of buy-in from his committed staff, Anderson’s plan was put into action. Anderson sadly passed away in 2011. His plan, however, remains in effect today. As well as reducing its carbon footprint, Interface has also become a billion dollar corporation. The key message from this story has been the successful change in company culture. It was Anderson’s commitment to change, and his willingness to fully embrace sustainability in all its facets, that was his fundamental message to business leaders.
Along with the Interface experience, there have also been several annual conferences dedicated to sustainability issues, including Sustainable Brands and Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS). These conferences have been widely open to the entire business community for the last several years. The Sustainable Brands and LOHAS conferences alone, attract many Fortune 500 companies from around the globe, and attract thousands of delegates to their conferences every year in addition to thousands of views on their websites.
Prior to his untimely death, Anderson had been a tireless advocate of presenting his message to fellow business leaders around the world. He wrote books, had been featured in several business articles and film documentaries, presented at TED conferences, and received numerous high profile awards for his courage and leadership. He also inspired many other prominent business leaders to begin their own sustainability journeys. They in turn, have since spread the word across their networks and beyond. So, with all of this business insider information available, I remain curious why the imperative message about sustainability is not being heard by these 58%.
Once again the new season of Breaking Badhas, so far, proved that the writing and plot lines from Vince Gilligan and company continue to be brilliant and captivating. This is television drama at its best!
In many ways it’s a shame that AMC is the cable channel that hosts this intriguing series about the intricate dealings of an odd pair of meth cooks who stumble into chaos and amazingly find ingenious ways out. As characters, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have flourished beyond anyone’s expectations. To look back at the first two season’s and compare how the character arcs for these two exceptional lead characters and their supporting cast have developed is truly a work of genius. Despite the commercials and the inability to swear, include sex and nudity or graphic violence, the Breaking Bad writers have used these constraints to build intense story lines and exceptional dialog that negates the need for such R rated material.
The cold openings are a prime example of what Gilligan and his writing crew have specialized in and the most recent episode, “Madrigal”, is no exception. By opening the door to this “multifaceted manufacturing, construction and shipping concern headquartered in Hanover, Germany”, Gilligan has added a new dimension to Walter and Jesse’s future dealings with Hank and the DEA. Very intriguing indeed!
[Episode 2 - in the cold opening, Madrigal's fast food operations executive, Peter Schuler, sets up the intrigue for future plot twists.]
The real issue with being on AMC are the commercial breaks that intrude on the flow of the action. Fast forwarding through the ads becomes a nuisance and forces the viewer to momentarily disengage from the all-consuming action. Unlike HBO’s The Wire, which was equally well written and created by David Simon, Breaking Bad is limited by these constraints which leads one to think just how much more incredible the series could be if it had been picked up by Showtime or HBO. Each episode often demands a second or third viewing in order to fully appreciate the plot subtleties, superb acting and the seemingly innocuous sets where everything in the camera’s view may have some meaning or future purpose.
Reality TV for Dummies?
The other bizarre issue this season has been the pairing up of Breaking Bad with AMC’s new Small Town Security, which is a reality show about the day-to-day happenings at a dim-witted security firm, known as JJK Security, based in Ringgold, Georgia. How an audience that has become so accustomed to the sophistication and plot complexities of Breaking Bad could possibly be interested in this latest offering of a Lowest Common Denominator reality TV show is odd at best and just plain pathetic at its worst. Even some of the comments listed on AMC’s own website include gems like this. “I think we have now hit the bottom of the reality tv barrel. Sad. Just sad.”
AMC has scored big hits with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and kudos to them for hiring productions with such great writers and superb casts to make these shows the successful icons they’ve become in popular culture; but are viewers being short changed by not having these shows on the next tier in cable where the stories can flow seamlessly for an hour and without having to be promotional vehicles to gather audiences for the next throw-away TV show? It really is too bad, but again, the writers for Breaking Bad have obviously found a winning formula for getting around the constraints of commercial breaks and content limitations, it’s only the viewer who is left with the knowledge of wondering if the series could have been that much more of a satisfying experience.
The Transformation of Walter White… The mirror image version.
Someday, maybe in the not too distant future, every kind of product and service we consume will be purchased with the knowledge that all of its various components from inception to the end of its life cycle will be part of a continuous and sustainable loop that does no harm to the planet. That is to say, the “take – make – waste” way of linear thinking that has been the prevailing method for conducting business over the past one hundred-plus years will have shifted to a place where sustainability is the only way of doing business.
For some people, if such a radical change in business practice were to occur, it would have come only as a result of determined environmentalists “winning” their argument where protecting the environment trumps any notion of potential losses or curbing freewill in the marketplace.
Today, at least in the US, there is a clear divide between those who are seeking and proactively working towards a sustainable future and those who just aren’t interested, or they’re skeptical about anything that is labeled as “green”. The new triple bottom line known as “People, Planet and Profit” is a real daily mantra for some companies while others still seem to be focused only on short term goals. What will it take to change these attitudes for consumers and businesses?
In the past, most big changes that shifted consumer attitudes were due to tenacious advocates such as Ralph Nader’s huge efforts in 1965 for mandatory seat belts in cars, or twenty four years later when independent consumer groups demanded that McDonald’s stop using styrofoam in its Big Mac clam shells because they contained harmful CFC’s.
In both instances the changes were made and, in the case of the automobile industry, safety went on to become a major pillar in its marketing plans. And now, with the rise of social media, the ability for individuals to create change can happen instantly. However, there still is a divide among consumers that often mirrors political lines.
For instance, during the past ten to twenty years there has been a growing segment of the population that views the planet as a finite and exhaustible resource. This is of course true, but for some people it’s not an issue because there is no definitive end-date. However, whether it’s twenty years or five hundred years from now, the earth will eventually give up all of its retrievable non-renewable resources. The overriding message is that “dwindling resources and a rising population [will] mean we need disruptive change.” So what can be done to get everyone on the same page?
The shift in consumer thinking may be realized sooner than we think and it may occur on several fronts where different consumer segments, separated by differing political views and agendas, may all agree if only by accepting different messages and ideas that each arrive at same end-result.
In a new study on consumer “worldview thinking” the Shelton Group and John Marshall Roberts have revealed greater insight on how and why people react to sustainability messaging. According to the study, “there was a need to understand the why of sustainable consumer behavior in order to move sustainability messaging forward with more resonant and motivating communication.” The study focused on the premise that consumers typically fit into four predominant categories that are “specific, habitual ways of looking at the world that helps answer the why of consumer behavior.” The study found that consumers are either skeptical or indifferent on the one hand or they’re seeking information or actively participating in sustainable behaviors on the other.
By understanding these attitudes and behaviors, researchers are able to identify the kinds of customized messaging that will resonate and appeal to each consumer’s particular “worldview thinking”. For skeptical or indifferent consumers their attitude towards sustainability may be negative unless they can fully realize the idea of “what’s in it for me” which most often takes the form of competition and the need for social acceptance. Where as consumers who seek more information will be motivated by how sustainability affects the greater well being in their community; and for those who are actively involved the message should be about being pragmatic and empowerment.
With these consumer insights in hand, marketers can craft messages that focus on the needs, desires and values of each category of consumer and get them to agree and buy-in with their ideas. The notion of sustainability will mean different things to different groups and individuals and as long as there is a real, tangible benefit that adheres to their beliefs then there is a good chance that our attitudes will all change for the better.
As more and more companies are looking to implement and embed sustainability initiatives into their business plans, one company stands out as a beacon on how to be totally committed to changing the way business is done. InterfaceFLOR, which was founded by the late Ray Anderson, embarked on a mission in the mid-90′s at becoming 100% sustainable by the year 2020 where it would achieve the goal of completely eliminating any negative impact on the environment across its entire enterprise.
The company is squarely focused on selling great products (carpet tiles) that incorporate functionality with popular design and is based on an “innovative manufacturing processes to reduce waste and eliminate toxins from [its] products and facilities… and to completely eliminate any negative impact [it] may have on the environment by 2020.”
The lessons for all businesses, as expressed by Mr. Anderson, concentrate on eight major points that includes a “cultural shift” that needs to occur where the way we view business practices moves from “just seeking profit” to adopting a new paradigm that truly recognizes our place in the industrialized world.
From a branding perspective, InterfaceFLOR maintains a wide catalog of carpet products that are modern, fashionable and high quality. The environmental aspect of sustainability is not at the forefront of the company’s marketing efforts as Interface recognizes that the consumer is not buying the product because it comes from a sustainable business, rather, it has to meet their needs.