Five ways to tell if a company has gone fluffy on sustainability

painting a wall in lime greenThis is a guest post by Ramon Arratia, sustainability director of carpet maker Interface EMEAI. 

There’s been a huge amount of activity in the corporate sustainability field over the past decade. But although the overall the impression is that we have achieved a lot, few have actually reduced their environmental impacts where it really counts. That’s because they’re wasting too much time and effort on what is effectively just fluff.

And companies (as well as consultants and membership-reliant think tanks) have been tremendously innovative in coming up with new forms of fluff – changes that are easy and quick to implement or make for nice marketing soundbites, but won’t make any real difference because they focus on the wrong things. It’s time we began to identify and expose this fluff for what it really is so companies can cut the fluff and refocus their energy on what sustainability is fundamentally about: reducing impacts on the environment.

Here are five tell-tale signs of corporate sustainability fluff:

1. Ignoring the product If a company is talking about itself instead of its products or services, your fluff detector should immediately sound the alarm. Companies wouldn’t exist without the products they make and sell. It’s products that research and development teams create,  factories make, marketing and sales teams sell, and people buy. So if a company’s sustainability strategy doesn’t talk about products, then sustainability is simply not embedded in the organisation. What would you rather know: that a company’s offices are certified to the ISO 14001 standard; or that it has carried out a rigorous lifecycle analysis of its products’ environmental impacts and is now working hard to find ways to cut them? In terms of the difference a company can make to the environment, there’s simply no comparison. Why, then, are so many companies still focusing on their own operations?

2. Accentuating the positive Beware the company that sees everything through rose-tinted spectacles. If what you’re reading is super-positive, then it’s probably not the whole truth. Sustainability issues are difficult to tackle, and they take a lot of hard work to address. Yet based on what many companies tell you, you wouldn’t know it. From the focus on philanthropy in the 1990s to carbon neutrality in the Noughties and the misuse of the concept of net positive today, companies spend so much time and effort trying to persuade consumers that they’re green that they have no energy left to implement real change. Making sustainability a positive is often just a marketing tool: it has nothing to do with the real stuff. Yes, we want to hear about successes, but we also need to hear about the challenges companies face and what they’re doing about them.

3. Gimmick alert Competing on gimmicks is not competing on performance. Does it matter that a company has become the first in its sector to issue an A+ sustainability report, the first to set up a biodiversity offset, or the first to draw up a set of environmental profit and loss accounts? None of these consultant-driven things really mean anything unless they result in improvements in sustainability performance, and in most cases they don’t. If any company is focusing on how it’s leading the pack on anything other than hard metrics, your fluff-o-meter should go into overdrive. It’s far better to plough resources into reducing the impact of products and services than to come up with new ideas that will only ever put you ahead in a fluff race.

4. Over-use of labels Fluff-ridden organisations spend a lot of time telling you they have a label for this or a certificate for that,  or that they comply with one standard or another. But what does that really mean, especially if the labels, certificates and standards are not to be trusted in the first place? Most are flawed and narrow in scope, focusing on the easiest things to measure rather than the biggest issues. Many lack independent certification or may be run by organisations that are too closely associated with the companies themselves. Different labels often overlap on issues, obliging companies to waste time and money certifying the same product several times, time and money that could be invested in reducing a product’s impacts. Customers are bombarded by different labels and don’t know how to choose. And some of the best-marketed labels are also the least robust. Even if a label or certification has some validity, the usual way to attain it is to tick a lot of boxes, and ticking boxes is never going to create transformative change.

5. Too many targets Setting challenging public targets can be a useful way of improving accountability and providing the pressure required to drive progress within an organisation. But targets often sound more ambitious than they really are and, at worse, are simply fluff in disguise. Any target that is met too easily, often way before a deadline, shows a lack of ambition and reluctance to move away from easy wins. And it’s about quality of targets, not quantity. Having hundreds of goals is worthless if they focus on the wrong things. Wouldn’t be better just having a couple of targets on the issues that matter? Yes, materiality but you don’t need a materiality matrix to know that the biggest issue of an oil giant is not their offices or that the big impacts of a supermarket relates to the products they sell. Companies need to be bold and set their targets in areas where it really hurts – taking account of their products’ biggest impacts and focusing on the most difficult challenges they need to overcome.

Look out for these five signs to spot the fluff.  And if you recognise these traits in your own business, then do something about it right now, because if you’re focusing on fluff, you’re just not focusing on the things that matter.

 

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