Are there organizations already walking the talk of Conscious Business? Jean-Sébastien Simon, High Performance Coach and Lecturer in Conscious Business at ESSEC Business School, continues the series of features on Conscious Business with a focus on those who talk the walk, and those who walk the talk.
Conscious Business, the Planet, and Change by Jean-Sébastien Simon.
In 2009, the former Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, Johan Rockström lead a group of 28 internationally renowned researchers. They formed the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) and proposed a new Earth framework system for governments and corporations to know what the “Safe Operating Space for Humanity” is. This space lies below the threshold within nine planetary boundaries (Rockström et Al., 2009a, 2009b):
Climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater use, biogeochemical use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol loading, stratospheric ozone depletion, chemical pollution and novel entities.
The research indicates that life can still thrive on earth within the thresholds, but that the Earth can shift into a dangerous new state if the thresholds are crossed.
In 2015, the state of boundaries was the following:
Erin Billman, the executive Director of the SBTN said that the goal is to move toward “the equitable net zero carbon nature-positive future that … is needed in the environmental space.” (source)
The space within which Conscious Businesses need to operate has been well defined by this framework, and organizations at different stages of consciousness have taken it into account.
It is encouraging to see that large corporations which we sometimes label as the “bad students” also have positive initiatives, and are growing. For instance, Walmart has a Zero waste initiative and ambitious goals to shift towards a circular economy by 2025 in the US, Canada and Japan (source). For mastodons like that, change takes time, and a 1% decrease in their waste production – as they did in 2017 – means a large impact down the road. Yet, the concerns about Greenwashing remain valid and helpful to help the mastodons be more in integrity with who they claim they want to become.
To help in that direction, the marketing agency TerraChoice defined Seven Sins of Greenwashing (source):
- Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
- Sin of No Proof
- Sin of Vagueness
- Sin of Worshipping False Labels
- Sin of Irrelevance
- Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
- Sin of Fibbing.
They conducted a study in Canada and the U.S. in 2008-2009 which showed that 98% of the products tested committed at least one of these 7 sins of greenwashing.
Many certifications exist to track and trace the claims of companies for environmental friendliness (think Fair Trade, different Organic labels, and others).
Conscious Business – the planet and change. Conscious Businesses are Game Changers
In a Conscious Business, the game changes completely. Indeed, most unconscious companies try to compensate for activities they are carrying out, to “minimize their impact.”, while their main mission remains with a limited Purpose. For instance, BP states that “Our purpose is re-imagining energy for people and our planet. We want to help the world reach net zero and improve people’s lives.
We will aim to dramatically reduce carbon in our operations and in our production, and grow new low carbon businesses, products and services.“ (source) Yet, despite that stated purpose, most of today’s revenue come from fossil fuel consumption. BP has announced that it intends to cut by 40% it’s oil and gas production by 2030 (source).
In contrast, a company such as Sono Motors, developing solar-charging electric vehicles states that “CO₂ emissions must be reduced. We are taking matters into our own hands by making clean mobility affordable for everyone. For you. For generations to come.”
Another example from the N.G.O. world is The Ocean Cleanup, whose goal is to have filtered and recycled 90% of the Ocean’s plastic waste through its technologies.
To get a clearer picture of different organizations commitment to the Planet, we can distinguish 4 levels of Planetary Consciousness of organizations based on the Planetary Service they provide to Earth:
> Category 1: Planetary Serving Organizations
Purpose and Mission are clearly stated and directly contributes to making the Planet a healthier place within the Planetary boundaries. Example: The Ocean Cleanup.
> Category 2: Planetary Conscious Organizations
Purpose and Mission are clearly stated and the organization of activities (Processes) have a limited impact on the Planet and stay within the planetary boundaries. Example: Patagonia, Sono Motors (the purpose is to provide mobility while the means to this end is to be free of fossil fuels).
> Category 3: Ordinary Organizations
Purpose and Mission are unclear and do not align with a positive impact on the Planet. The organization compensates this misalignment by policies to try to reduce negative impacts through CSR and other policies such as “Greening”. Example: BP’s purpose is very vaguely stated (“reimagining energy”) and the goals do not align with the 2030 horizon to reach an economy within planetary boundaries.
> Category 4: Planetary Unconscious Organizations
The organization is completely unaware of the negative impact its activities has on the impact and the planet.
Note that in Category 1 organizations, greenwashing is impossible since the explicit Purpose of the organization itself is to make the Planet a cleaner place. They are the standard setters. For instance, the non-profit Sadhana Forest is a vegan community which creates afforestation and reforestation projects in India, Haiti and Kenya through highly effective permaculture based practices. They too would be an example of a Category 1 organization.
Conscious Brands are living their Purpose aligned with the Planet’s needs
Brands such as Patagonia have already shown their commitment, by donating 1% of their sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. For Patagonia, this has resulted in a total of $89 million donated to grassroots environmental groups making a difference in their local communities. When President Trump cut corporate taxes during his mandate, Patagonia donated the 10 million USD in savings to environmental groups. Another example is the brand Seventh Generation which was nominated in the Top 50 most sustainable brands in the world.
Obviously, businesses which have a positive impact on the planet, and are aware and working on reducing their negative impact will be more sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, this contributes directly to the well-being of the employees (the Psyche). Businesses which could develop symbiotically with Nature offer long term gains and prosperity. In this sense, innovations and practices such as biomimicry, carbon offsetting (with its three phases of carbon reduction, carbon neutrality, and carbon positivity), circular economy, upcycling, and renewable energies are great avenues for creating a more synergetic relationship between business and planet.
Organizations can evolve from a Level 4 Organization to a Level 1 type. What kind of organization would you like to work with? What would it take for you to be a change agent within your existing organization?
- Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., … & Foley, J. A. (2009a). A safe operating space for humanity. nature, 461(7263), 472-475.
- Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin III, F. S., Lambin, E., … & Foley, J. (2009b). Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and society, 14(2).
- Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … & Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223)
- Link up with Jean-Sébastien Simon on LinkedIn
- Read the opening introductory article in the series: Moving With and Beyond CSR: The 6 Ps of Conscious Business
- Download the CoBS publication: Leadership, Governance, and Crisis
- Discover the new MSc in Sustainability Transformation at ESSEC Business School
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
- Website: www.council-business-society.org
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- LinkedIn: the-council-on-business-&-society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
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