“Sustainability ain’t gonna last forever” / the opportunities in behavioural change

The part of the title in quote marks above is a direct quotation from a corporate executive faced with looking at what sustainable business meant for their company.

In other words, despite the paradoxical nature of the statement, sustainable business is a fad that will go away soon.

How wrong that executive was, and is.

Sustainable business used to be about license to operate, trust, cause related marketing and environmental efficiency, among other issues.

Now we realise it’s about having a market to sell to, and resources to meet society’s needs in the next few decades and beyond.

A wholly different proposition.

As some readers will know, I don’t believe the ethical consumer is any kind of solution to, or business case for, tackling the serious social and environmental problems business faces.

But the sustainable citizen, that’s a whole other proposition. That’s where we’ll need to get to.

That’s where the real opportunity for business in B2C engagement lies. Whole industries will be turned upside down in efforts to understand how to meet the needs of sustainably citizenry in the next few decades.

Those that get it early, or soon after the leaders, will win. Those who cling onto the old business model will slowly die out.

I’m talking about business engagement firstly in internal behavioural change, and secondly in citizen/customer behavioural change.

I had an hour yesterday with Amanda Long, formerly of Unilever and Anglian Water, who re-invigorated my thinking on this issue. She’s now boss of change management consultancy Corporate Culture.

Amanda has promised to flesh out her thinking in this area in an article for Ethical Corporation.

What if, she suggests, companies can start doing what some have been talking about for years, and that FMCG firms have led the way on, outside of a few retail companies?

That’s teaming up with institutions and NGOs, to name a couple, to engage customers in changing the way they live, to minimise resource use.

Of course, we all know about the campaigns that have led the way here: Persil, Marks & Spencer and others have done lots in this area. Centrica/British Gas is thinking hard about this too. But personally I hadn’t considered quite how far it could go beyond a few leading brands. For example, what if ALL the utilities had a real plan to do this kind of work? More fool me for not thinking that idea through properly.

That may be a big ask: Traditionally water utilities have been reactive at best. Power generating companies usually appear to be more of the problem than the solution.

Anglian Water has a programme around behavioural change, called Love Every Drop. To give you an example of another opportunity that occurs to me: I read this week that about 15% of London’s excessive air pollution is caused by taxi drivers idling their engines. Think about that. I am.

After persuading me of the deep and lasting potential of citizen/customer behavioural change for business sustainability Amanda said one thing that really struck home:

“Behavioural change is at a level of misunderstanding that sustainability was at five years ago, and CSR was at ten years ago”

From what I know, she’s right.

When it comes to potential business innovation, there’s nothing like a misunderstood opportunity.

More on this issue again soon.

It’s now been pushed way up my agenda. Late to the party as I may be.


  1. Toby, keep behaviour change there at the top of your agenda…its critical, and is not addressed by sending out guidelines from the corporate centre. its been at the core of our work and thinking at TwentyFifty. keep up the good work! Luke

  2. Hi Tony,

    I am a big fan of behavioral change, and I'nm trying to practice it before preaching. I fail constantly, but never give up.

    When do you think "sustainable citizens" will become a group significant enough to, e.g. get rid of PET bottles?
    Being Hungarian (EU citizen?), I'm also worried about the differences in behavioral change paces a across the map.

    Funnily enough, our great grand fathers knew more about sustainable citizenry as they had no other choices. Soon, we won't have any either.

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