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The Mindset Gap in Addressing Sustainability Context

Image credit: TestMeat

This is the third in a four-part series by Ralph Thurm and Nick De Ruiter examining Sustainability Context.

In the first piece in this multi-part series, “The Sudden Materiality Shock,” we spoke of the key (but underappreciated) role that Sustainability Context plays in defining Materiality, and the need to develop a reporting mechanism that captures this interconnection, which could eventually best be described as “micro-macro-linked” — with “micro” representing company-level impacts on social and environmental resources, and “macro” representing systems-level thresholds of impacts that are sustainable.

What has become painfully clear is the considerable distance people working in sustainability still need to travel to make this connection. Obviously, we need to first address this “mindset gap” that keeps us artificially busy and distanced from the “greater good” of achieving a green & inclusive economy together. Only then can we get down to the core of how to address Sustainability Context through purposeful and future-oriented disclosure in reporting, including feasible strategic discussions and — like it or not — a different sort or set of indicators than we have right now. So why is there such a distance to seeing Sustainability Context in a corporate setting? Here are various observations:

  1. For too many in our community, sustainability and strategy are still two different things, partially or even completely disconnected. If sustainability managers say that working in scenario teams or being closely involved in strategy development and subsequent R&D/innovation efforts is simply not what they are paid for, we are disappointed by the little mindset progress we made. Honestly, we hoped we went beyond the idea that the sustainability manager or head of sustainability simply just orchestrates compliance towards laws & regulation, standards or guidelines. What we still sense is a deep hesitation to overcome certain obstacles towards an integrated approach, using careful tactics to not “overstretch,” deep fear of being seen as the “activist,” so it's better to remain the “lobbyist” for what is good for the company and the individual position on short-term. As this has been a rather successful approach in the past, why change it? Most global problems are mentally and physically still far away, and most colleagues that do not work in sustainability wouldn’t want to understand them anyway (too complicated, scientifically not 110 percent proven, disturbing, etc). So, why bother about megatrends?
  2. We specifically observed how companies react to the macro-based information out there, ranging from the work of TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), Global Footprint Network and Global Nature Fund to the dozens of reports produced and macro scenarios presented by institutes, issue groups and initiatives. The basic response is close to denial, using the argument that the way this information is presented doesn’t help companies to translate this into concrete tooling, so in the end they couldn’t do more than just to take note, and that’s it. When we then asked why certain companies seem to be able to use this information and work with these data, denial level two kicks in: Either these were special companies with a specific or fitting product/service portfolio, or they would have a size not too big, so that working with these data wouldn’t be too complex for them. Also, this sort of work shouldn’t be done by a single company anyway since level playing fields would be needed when introduced on broader scale, but these wouldn’t exist today. Puma’s Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) is great, but hardly any other company has tried it out since Puma came out with it in 2011; the number of excuses to not dig into it is too long — and the argument, ‘it will come one day, so better be prepared’ (playing the risk management card) doesn’t work either. Too much workload, too short a horizon, too low the incentives, too high the fear to stick out the neck. And that leads directly to the next point:
  3. Fortunately, not all companies are like that, and that has to do with leadership. We see a constant pattern that only those companies that have an enlightened leader or leadership group get to a level of commitment that these — let’s call them “experiments” — are wanted, a certain “trial-and-error” attitude is giving some breath to sustainability managers involved. Also, those leaders actually encourage cross-functional project groups around long-term performance targets based on scenarios and the idea of an integrated strategy. It is interesting to see that these companies in most cases don’t have a sustainability strategy — they just have a strategy. Dealing with context information in these companies is a no-brainer and the necessary tools are normally “created” right there and not “delivered by others.” These companies see external advisors as a positive stretch and challenge to their own knowledge base and encourage infusions — external advisors can even become a separate stakeholder group. The triangular project setup that includes a company, an NGO and a consultant in a team setting seems to work, as well as the willingness to work with other companies in cross-industry learning environments, initiatives, labs, etc.
  4. Another constant part of that “mindset gap” is that many sustainability strategies are based on effects, not root causes. Doing work with leaders, we first try to observe the whole set of often intermingled action areas, something that one can actually already start from the existing materiality matrix of issues that companies use in their reporting. Sustainability strategy areas are normally based on the GRI Guideline aspects or industry-specific action areas, and many of them derive from root causes such as environmental degradation, demographic effects, world trade shifts, urbanization, technological developments and transparency gains — but none of these root causes are addressed in the G4 Guidelines, and therefore remain out of focus for sustainability personnel. So going back that one step to the root cause level actually falls out of the scope of sustainability experts (supported by what was discussed under point 2).
  5. As a consequence, this reduced approach (based just on the existing GRI Guidelines) leads to “less bad” target setting, and very often is disconnected with the main impact through products and/or services. Have a look at the GRI Guidelines and ask yourself how often the Guidelines talk about products and/or services, apart from product stewardship in the social section!?! One can argue that this would actually be the job of sector disclosures, but then there would be the need to focus work on a complete set of them more thoroughly, an approach not followed by GRI for several years now. A sustainability regime based on effects or symptoms instead of the real root causes mentally restricts companies from going “to the real core” and making the connection to the real opportunities in sustainability. Instead, there is a more risk-based tendency to reduce harm, and not to increase positive impacts. That is the real reason why becoming “net-positive” is still light-years away for the majority of companies — they find a million reasons and “yes, buts…” instead of working on this ultimate business case for sustainability starting today, and not one day later.
  6. In consequence, the G4 Content Principle on Sustainability Context is the most neglected one, while the wording there clearly defines the need to address context from a root cause basis, think about opportunities, ambitions and positioning of the company’s strategy vis-à-vis these root causes, and only then define the necessary boundaries to decide which impact reduction strategies actually make sense in the light of a positive impact focus.
  7. A further cause for relaxed thinking about Sustainability Context is the smooth way IIRC has taken on the idea of the six capitals that are part of the Framework Version 1. While we personally commend the IIRC to sticking to this generic model (called the “octopus”) from the moment it presented its first discussion paper, we were hoping for a way more rigid use of the idea of the capitals. In our view, the capitals form a great link to and present a great structure of introducing proper context and value-creation “docking stations” for the above presented approach of starting from root causes to strategy development. Instead, we face a situation where IIRC mentions the capitals as an area “for inspiration” in order to “not forget potential impact areas.” That is too weak and doesn’t sound “important,” so again not too much time is spent on assessing the capitals. The work of the 100-companies-strong IIRC pilot group has focused mainly on “integrated thinking,” whereas “holistic thinking” would have been way more appropriate. If the capitals model isn’t taken seriously, we will remain on the symptoms and effects level, instead of addressing the real root causes.
  8. To finish off, the work of the Thriveability Consortium (of which Ralph is one of the founders) has been an eye-opener over the last two years with regard to the levels of human consciousness for the development of a “world view” within an individual or corporate mindset. The idea of “spiral dynamics” that emerged over the last 20-30 years clearly differentiates various levels of human consciousness development, and also differentiates between first and second tier awareness, describing their ability or disability to create the world we need. Only second-tier individuals and organizations will be able to really develop the idea of a world view through the inherent different ways of interconnectedness and organizing codes and principles needed in a sustainable world. We are generally positive that we will be able to level up more companies to the second-tier. Those organizations will see the “macro-micro link” as a no-brainer. Those companies will be winning, but for a big group of tier-one companies, life will become tough.

We are on a journey. It is not enough to approach the abyss at 40 miles per hour instead of 60 miles per hour; we need to find the brake and turn around the vehicle. Awareness of the need for that turnaround, timing still available, and definition of a new direction will become essential. There is no useful sustainability reporting or integrated reporting without this information, defined for the individual business case per company. Sustainability Context is therefore an absolute core. The more companies get out of the avant garde and into the mainstream, the sooner we will get there. As Omar Bradley said decades ago: “It’s time to be steered by the stars, and not by the light of each passing ship.” Today, this is truer than ever.

Next: Comparability of Sustainability Information — Slaughtered on the Altar of Materiality?


Ralph Thurm is a leading professional in sustainability strategies, operational sustainability, sustainability reporting and assurance as well as behavioral change for sustainability. With more than 20 years experience working for major corporates, industry federations, governments and NGOs all over the… [Read more about Ralph Thurm]


Before founding Sustainalize, Nick was a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is a specialist in the field of CR policy-making and CR governance, and was the project manager of the Transparency Benchmark and the redesign of the criteria. Furthermore, Nick has worked with large-…
[Read more about Nick De Ruiter]