Sustainability Intelligence needs to drive actual change, not just confirm assumptions
“And UNDP said, Let there be Sustainability and there was ……..”
Was there? Given the current grandeur of many proclamations in this field, the paraphrase of the Genesis 1:3 intro above is really not that farfetched. However, asking many scholars, as well as representatives of the younger generations today, we quickly learn that their opinions regarding the actual doings of those uttering these fine words are less than supportive. It is rather “They will never ever succeed in getting the changes actually needed under way”.
Who are “they”? Short answer: Governments and large corporate management! But, one could legitimately respond, who, if not them, with their combined legislative and financial powers at their fingertips, would then be able to do it?
In more theoretical texts on International Relations, the concept of international anarchy is central to understand why nations behave as they do when competing on an international level for resources and prosperity. Michael Porter was on to a similar approach in his book “Competitive advantage of nations” quite some years ago. Unfortunately, we quickly learn when reading such texts, that altruism is not much of a character to rely on with regards to the pan-national level. Still, sustainability is inherently a global matter so how to get the necessary change going? Is it us individuals, we the global citizens, that need to change behavior and hope for the best when it comes to governments and large corporate?
It is obvious to anyone with even a minimal interest in the topic that the complexity of this matter is extensive and that there simply are no “yes or no” answers to any of these questions, other than that all need to contribute from their own perspective. It is also very important to realize that change, big change, is already under way but it can always be debated whether it is sufficient. Different solutions also quickly become political, and people opinionated, with regards to what are the most preferred remedies in various fields of Sustainable Development management. Still, legislators are imposing regulations on finance and industry, big tech is rushing to bring sustainable technology to the market and societies in general are growing an awareness above and beyond any level hitherto experienced with regards to sustainable behavior.
So … Great? Agreed? All set then? – No! Far from it!
One question alone suffices to overturn any sense of current consensus enlightenment in this field and that is “What is Sustainable?”
It is likely that nine out of ten people when asked “What is Sustainable?” would reply with something about climate change, and CO2 reduction in particular, as that is by far the number one sustainability matter discussed by politicians and media. However, it is probably fair to claim that the most comprehensive consensus to date on “What is Sustainable?” are the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the SDG’s), https://sdgs.un.org/goals, and, without any prejudice on priorities, the fact of the matter is that the CO2 challenge is but one part of one of those 17 goals.
When scrutinizing the 17 goals a bit deeper, a reasonable generalization could be to claim that the challenges addressed are all varying consequences of our global consumption patterns, and in most corners of the world consuming means that a big or small business is providing me with goods or services. As well known, we are all consumers at the end of so called “value chains”.
The conclusion of all the above is rather straightforward: Companies, or businesses, whether large corporates or small locals, are, and will even more become, the focal point of global sustainable development. Governments and regulators will push with their legislative powers (e.g. SFDR, NFRD, CSRD etc., in many texts combined under the ESG umbrella) and consumers will push by prioritizing suppliers that meet their expectations on a sustainable future.
So, “Companies, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, just do it! Immediately adjust your supply chains, reduce harmful emissions to zero, extinct all waste, make fair trade a standard and ensure decent living conditions on all locations of your business! Or…, is it maybe not that easy?
Although currently debated by some, the role of companies to date is still to make a profit by providing sought for products or services to its markets. To do so, continuous investments of various sorts are a necessity and to be able to sustain such investments over time, profits are needed. The challenge, though, is that adjusting business towards a more sustainable operation is more or less costly and even if most would agree that the long-term benefits will, by far, exceed any potential shorter term disadvantages and costs, the big questions is how long-term and how short-term these will prove to be. Will the true “first movers” go bust as the short-term proved longer than expected and accumulated “sustainability costs” drain the cash flow to a level where there is no further room for a going concern? All while the competitors who have taken the stance to wait and see are filling up their cash accounts. No, that approach is for most far too risky. So, how to approach the task?
Today we see an overwhelming sustainability communication from the corporate world, so overwhelming that many now start asking themselves, “can this really be true?”. Unfortunately, the answer in many cases is “no!”. The label for this is “Greenwashing”, i.e. the communicative activity of positioning yourself in a more favorable sustainability stance than what you could actually live up to if audited. Various scholars have even warned that Greenwashing is getting so common that we are risking the entire trustworthiness of the global sustainability work at large.
Let’s hope we can put an end to the greenwashing trend and start on a truly business driven sustainability journey by being true to our claims and do what we claim to do.
This is where the title of this article finally comes into play, that of Sustainability Intelligence. If you google the term “Sustainability Intelligence”, you will find the traditional offerings of structured data analysis and predictive tools to be able to match and benchmark sustainability indexes of various sorts, but how do you index child labor, poverty and responsible consumption? CO2/ton emission, fine, but as a company and organization, you must go much deeper than that and make sure to embed the sustainability genes throughout your entire operation.
Enterprise Intelligence operations (and all its subcomponents such as Market, Competitive, Technology, Patent, etc… Intelligence), is a matter of ensuring a corporate capability of being the number one provider of choice on any given market addressed. Another way of putting this is to ensure that your strategy is the one most aligned with the current business environment of your addressable market(s). Sustainability Intelligence is no different! Sustainable Development is here to stay and will, at a pace that few seem to have yet embraced, evolve into one of the key business environment factors to adhere to, for market offerings to be attractive and for regulatory compliance to be fulfilled.
For the reasons already addressed above, this will be a challenge going forward, for any organization. The balance between market and regulatory demands, new investments, increased costs and one of the most competitive industry eras hitherto experienced, will require substantial corporate understanding mechanisms as well as detailed planning and deployment capabilities. One solution is to be found in the modus operandi of Enterprise Intelligence but with a sole focus on Sustainable Development, hence Sustainability Intelligence.
The key to intelligence operations of all sorts is to provide support to, and have an impact on, decision makings of all kinds. In pure practice, developing a Sustainability Intelligence capability is thus no different from developing e.g. a Market & Competitive Intelligence capability. The same key components apply; a good and professional source mix, an information model with capable automation algorithms (in this case based on e.g. the 17 SDGs), an intelligence platform designed to support such automation, a subject matter expert network, and finally, of course, a thought through people strategy enabling the organization to embrace the task of sustainability on all levels. The most important design criteria are to make sure that the organization can make sense of the myriads of sustainability claims on the market, is able to gradually and professionally adapt its own operations accordingly and finally have an ongoing and honest dialogue with its market and engaged customer groups on the topic of sustainability adaptation.
For those without an immediate experience of Enterprise Intelligence operations this might sound as just yet one more layer of complexity but that could not be farther from the truth. On the contrary, a capable Sustainability Intelligence operation will rapidly pay off, as many otherwise costly initiatives will inherently unearth as “grass root work”, already addressed within the organization, as the societal engagement is so predominant.
So, in summary, if you need to condense all this into one message to company management it would be: Your company is part of the society and some of your customers that are requiring a change towards sustainability are most likely also some of your employees. Deploy a Sustainability Intelligence operation to enable them, and their colleagues, to become your most valuable resource in this “there is no alternative” transition of your company!
Inzyon Reflections is a series of brief thoughts and observations with a bearing on insights management in general and, every now and then, sustainability matters in particular. For additional Inzyon Reflections, see here.