The Importance of Incremental Sustainability Change
The late Neil Armstrong always emphasised that the race to the moon was a relay race, with the lunar landing at its apex. Every prior mission did as many new things possible, to “move them a little farther along the ladder towards success”.
Sustainability is not exactly like travelling to the moon: we knew where the moon was. A company trying to become sustainable finds itself on the open sea in unchartered waters, reacting to inputs to try and decide on the best direction to go in. It must be alert and responsive, constantly learning and adjusting its course.
In my previous articles I have looked at a wide range of strategies for "doing business differently." Some could be considered radical; many are more incremental – developing current models to make them less bad or better. I would argue that incremental adjustments play as important a role as radical innovation in the sustainability relay race.
As described in two previous blogs (The Power of Purpose and Sustainability & ‘Profits’), many of the most responsible companies that I interviewed first established values that entrenched what was important to them at the very heart of their businesses – not necessarily sustainability related. Reflection around their values helped them learn about their wider business system and the risks, impacts and opportunities that made it possible for sustainability to be integrated into their existing core values.
Baby steps aren’t just for babies
The learning stage of this relay is going on within organisations where sustainability, although considered, is not a priority; where responsibility is viewed as a means of managing risk, opportunity and regulatory compliance, as opposed to something that is simply the right thing to do.
These companies move towards the harder questions: for instance, a company that reports on its responsible activities using the GRI framework must at the very least state where it is not taking environmental, social or economic action on sustainability. Thus companies that begin their journey by looking at saving money through emissions reductions and efficiency savings must also consider what they are not doing.
CCE, with its ambitious water conservation, packaging, and recycling programmes, knows that it could set up a fully closed-loop zero-emissions business that would still not be considered sustainable if achieved through a product portfolio dominated by Coca Cola. Whilst the ultimate responsibility for the product’s use lies with the consumer, CCE realises that it must expand its offering (and indeed it is) to include alternative revenue streams if it is truly to become a more sustainable business.
Nearly all sustainability initiatives contain within them a moral component: there is no obligation on companies to go beyond what is required by regulation and legislation. Once past efficiency measures, predicting returns from any sustainability-driven activity requires interdisciplinary "thinking in the round," if not an element of faith too: at least conviction, as Mark Adams from Vitsœ puts it. Decisions based on numbers can be considered management; but when the numbers end, “you’re into leadership… navigating blind… using judgement, intuition, skills and individual values too in making decisions”.
Revealing the tough questions step by step
Taking decisions that put organisations on a path that heads towards asking the tough questions is part of building up the internal understanding of why it is right that the tough questions are even considered. We are what we repeatedly do: as knowledge is embedded, values form and it becomes natural to explore more challenging issues.
Many proposals for more sustainable business systems are open to criticism for failing to ask the hard questions; for not questioning if companies are serving or driving need. Companies must build a foundation of understanding if they are to get to a point when asking tough questions is within their framework of values; where individuals can interpret the company’s responsibilities evermore broadly.
The spiral of culture is largely incremental. It is individuals that define, uphold and develop company values. Any successful business strategy, sustainability focussed or not, has to "engage the intelligence of the people on the floor as much as those at the top". Values that bring the corporate community together create the conditions needed for more radical change.
Radical innovation plays a vital role in sustainable progress. I don’t believe that there is path dependence between radical innovation and incremental sustainability progress, but I do think that radical innovation is embedded in it: to butcher Hart, an incremental-progress sustainability strategy facilitates and accelerates capability development in radical innovation for sustainability. The two should proceed in parallel.
“The truth of a new paradigm doesn’t just spring into existence. It will have been there all along, obscured by the old, flawed views of reality” said Ray Anderson. Steady steps reveal these flawed views, helping the entire organisation to support a new reality.
 Armstrong, N. (2009) NASA: Neil Armstrong Remarks from Congressional Gold Medal July 21, 2009 – YouTube.[Online] Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xeRXlgchdQ&sns=tw [Accessed 9/4/2012].
 Global Reporting Initiative –https://www.globalreporting.org/Pages/default.aspx
 Hodgson, S. (2012) Interview with Simon Hodgson (Carnstone<http://www.carnstone.com/>) conducted by Hill-Landolt, J. – 30/07/12. [Recorded Interview] London.
 Chouinard, Y. & Stanley, V. (2012), p.5, The responsible company. 1st edition. Ventura, CA, Patagonia Books. Quoting to Jack Stack, CEO of the famously revitalised Springfield Manufacturing Company,
 Hart, S. L. (2007) Capitalism at the crossroads: aligning business, earth, and humanity. 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J., Wharton School Publishing.
 Contact 6-Heads star Ilana Taub if you want to learn about radical innovation – her thesis examined the subject in detail, and using M&S as a case study investigated the ideal conditions for radical innovation.
 Anderson, R. C. & White, R. (2009), l.993, Business lessons from a radical industrialist. Kindle edition. London, Random House Business Books.
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