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
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
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
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
in 2004. Frankel can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.