Which Organisations are Actually Sustainable?

Simon Kelly attempts to differentiate between the organisations that just ‘talk the talk’ and those who actually ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to sustainable practice.

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Credit: Mathew Schwartz at Upsplash

How can you tell which organisations are actually practicing what they preach? – A simple and essential question that you almost certainly cannot answer.

You know why the question is important… We are increasingly aware that we, as a species, currently live well beyond the environmental carrying capacity of our planet and its communities. Nonetheless a meaningful and informed response to such a vital issue remains elusive for most of us.

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Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

So how do we resolve this situation?

If it is critical that we act now, how do we ensure that those actions make a positive impact? In such a challenging context how can we spend our time and money in a way that promotes more ethical and sustainable consumer, employment and investment choices?

The number of people asking these questions is growing. The global market for sustainable goods and products is now estimated at $966bn… and rising. Unsurprisingly, it is a ‘growth industry’ and one that many organisations want to be positively associated with, thus the number of environmental and sustainable claims they make is ever growing.

Which brings us back to the original question – how can we tell which organisations are actually sustainable? How do we know which ones are taking genuine and substantive sustainable actions?

If you like, which organisations are actually practicing what they preach?

To make informed decisions we need information. Herein lies the problem. It is fiendishly difficult to get information that evidences an organisation’s sustainability credentials. It is therefore difficult to discern which organisations we should support with our time and money.

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Why is answering this question so difficult?

First, and foremost, it is due to a lack of transparency. Sustainability communication is a murky business. Getting your hands on simple, reliable and comparable sustainability performance data from organisations is all but impossible. Organisations control the narrative. It is invariably in their interests to communicate positives and to hide negatives.

Research demonstrates that this is the predominant approach to sustainability communication. One study came to conclude that it was ‘highly doubtful that CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) communication provided audiences with an authentic representation of a company’s performance’. Equally, terrachoice found that 95.5% of products and services that claimed to be ‘green’ committed at least one ‘sin of greenwash’. All of which is to say that only 4.5% of organisations are transparent about their sustainability claims.

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Second, we must not confuse ‘sustainability activity’ with ‘sustainability achievement.’ There is a lot of ‘noise’ around sustainability, to the point that within large organisations sustainability now commands the 3rd largest marketing budget share.

This must be good? The evidence suggests otherwise. Numerous independent studies have found that existing communication focuses almost solely on aims and intentions rather than actions and performance. This is exemplified by a study that examined Belgian CSR communication and concluded that 64% did not include one single performance indicator.

Sustainability is, apparently, more rhetoric than reality for many organisations.

This lack of comparable performance data is the biggest barrier to greater change for both practitioners (i.e. those in charge of sustainability) and investors. In respect of customers, 60% of consumers want brands to make it easier to see what their positions are on important sustainability issues.

Perhaps, most damming of all, is the fact that 87% of Business Executives agree that it is sometimes hard to tell if a company cares about a social cause, or is using it simply to sell more products and services… and to make greater profits.

Finally, we are all busy people, each with competing concerns and commitments; we have neither the time nor ability to interpret and fully understand all current sustainability claims, labels and reports. Should we wish to delve further, we would learn that the average sustainability report is approximately 60 pages long.

This begs the question ‘who actually reads them?’

Equally, what would be the point in doing so given that these documents – across 11 countries – were consistently found to not score high on credibility.

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What this all means in practice, is that when faced with a consumer decision we can easily and quickly compare price – and probably even quality – of a product. However, it remains practically impossible to do this with sustainability credentials, no matter how much we care about such factors.

So, what’s the solution? Introducing Just Comments

We need objective, reliable and comparable performance data, which informs the organisation, investors and consumers. Data that is easy to understand and that comes from people we trust to tell the truth.

Just Comments is creating a movement to do just this. When it comes to social or environmental claims, 74 per cent of people believe ‘word of mouth’ of an employee over a corporate brochure or advert. We have therefore built a platform to give employees – i.e. you – the ability to have your say.

As employees, volunteers and attendees, you have unmatched experience and knowledge about how your organisation actually operates in practice and on a daily basis.

Our open-source platform allows those ‘in the know’ to enlighten others on the realities of the behaviours and cultures of companies, public sector bodies, charities and festivals, so that we can more effectively identify and support progressive organisations.

Our aim is to become the ‘Trip Advisor’ for sustainability, providing simple, on-line and effective metrics – free of charge – that highlight how truly committed an organisation is to the treatment and well being of its people, environment and communities.

We are a brand new movement, launched in August 2019. For us to promote truly effective, positive change, we need you to spare two minutes to (anonymously) share with us (and through us with others) what you know. We are just a platform. You are the change agent; never has the phrase ‘sharing is caring’ been so true.

Returning to the opening question, with your support Just Comments will help finally differentiate the ‘walkers from the talkers’. All you have to do is visit, share and engage to become part of the solution.

About the Author: Simon Kelly is Co-Founder of Just Comments, a platform that aims to provide greater transparency on sustainability for organisations, consumers, employees and investors. He is also Co-Founder of Obliquity group, a tech platform that provides deep data to help organisations embed sustainability and inform, involve and inspire employees.

Please contact simon@obliquitygroup.com for more.

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