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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2003 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking

Shades of Green
“ Sustainable business” means
different things to different people.


By Senior Columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

It was Shakespeare, wasn’t it, who said: “What’s in a name? That which we call ‘sustainable business’ would by any other name be as obscure.”

Or, wait a moment, maybe it wasn’t Shakespeare. Maybe it was . . . well, it doesn’t really matter. My point is this: “sustainable business” or “socially responsible business,” or whatever you want to call it, means different things to different people.

Let’s take a closer look at “sustainable business” so we can better understand how the term is used.

•Tactical: Some enterprises claim to be “sustainable” or “socially responsible” when their sustainability work is pretty exclusively tactical. Their focus is on eco-efficiency and such.

• Strategic: Other companies—not all that many, unfortunately—have gone beyond tactics and are integrating sustainability into their strategic planning. Dupont, for instance, is trying to steer away from materials-intensive product lines. If tactical sustainability is like keeping your car tuned up for better mileage, strategic sustainability is like trading in your SUV for a hybrid-electric.

• Deep-Strategic: Then there is the sustainability that is associated with what I think of as “deep strategy.” Say what? Here’s what: most of us know where tactics come from. They come from strategy. But where does strategy come from? It comes from “deep strategy,” by which I mean the territory where we negotiate the immensely important stuff that lurks beneath the surface of almost every transaction, things like power dynamics and worldviews.

If strategic sustainability is like trading in your gas guzzler for a hybrid-electric, deep-strategic sustainability is like switching to mass transit—and trying to get everyone else to do so, too. It’s about messing with the system at a very deep level.

• Technological: At this point we come to an entirely different slant on “sustainable business”: enterprises whose business is built around addressing an environmental problem, most often through technology—a fuel-cell company, for instance.

• Structural: Last but not least, there are enterprises that are setting out to re-invent what corporations are designed to do. Two camps are facing off in today’s globalized economy. One is corporate and commercial, while the other, often dubbed “civil society,” claims to represent the public good. You might think of it as “free market meets Free Willy.” Wouldn’t it be nice if this huge divide could be bridged by an ownership and governance structure that totally aligned private enterprise with the greater good? In fact, quite a few efforts are underway to make this happen, at both the think-tank and practice levels. One enterprise that has set out on this path is ManyOne Networks (www.manyone.net), a start-up information utility I happen to be quite familiar with because I recently took a job with the company. A for-profit enterprise, ManyOne Networks will soon be wholly owned by a foundation, The ManyOne Foundation, which will distribute income to social and environmental causes.

For many years, so-called “socially responsible companies” have been giving a percentage of their profits (often 10 percent) to non-profit causes. The new approach is different. Not only is the percentage higher (The ManyOne Foundation will distribute all its income to earth-friendly projects and causes), but the giveaway is mandated by the corporate charter. For most socially responsible companies, whether or not to donate income to causes is a discretionary management decision. In ManyOne’s case, there’s no getting around that duty: it’s embedded in the corporate DNA.

These, then, are the five different flavors of “sustainable business”—tactical, strategic, deep-strategic, technological and structural. In reality they bleed into each other: companies typically mix and match them to some degree. These days, the emphasis is largely on the tactical and technological. In fact, if we scan the current business scene, we find a whole lot of tactical, burgeoning amounts of technological, a smattering of strategic, interesting structural rumblings at the edges, and virtually no deep-strategic activity at all—unless you include the structural efforts, which come to think of it are deep-strategic in the sense that they’re tinkering with capitalism’s DNA.

All five shades of sustainability are useful, but in the opinion of your humble (sic) columnist we need a whole lot more of the structural and deep-strategic varieties. Why? Because that’s how transformation happens, and we need transformation if business is ever going to really, truly qualify as “sustainable.” It was Shakespeare, I believe, who said it best: For sustainable business to merit the name/It’s got to change the rules of the game.


Carl Frankel’s next book, Out of the Labyrinth: Who We are, How We Go Wrong and What We Can Do About It, will be published in 2004. Frankel can be reached at: carl.frankel@manyone.net.


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