Sustainability vs. Responsibility

I’ve just had a fascinating conversation with a friend of mine who has a wealth of experience in management research.

He makes the following argument:

Executives are so far removed from the implications of non financial impacts* (resulting from business decisions/operations) that they usually do not take them into consideration.

Changing this will clearly require a change in culture, To one that focuses on impact and responsibility.

Therefore we shouldn’t be talking about sustainability as a management practice.

The most relevant term is responsibility.

That brings in the impact of business activities and operations much more clearly.

i.e. Minimise the negative and maximise the positive.

Considering management in this way requires a collective understanding of consequences.

Responsibility is a much more powerful paradigm than sustainability with regard to achieving this goal.

Ergo, responsibility should not be subsumed into the often woolly language of sustainable development.

Measuring the impacts of your work is clearly the key to sustainability. It’s also incredibly hard, but not impossible.

A focus on these impacts is more clearly defined using the term responsibility rather than sustainability.

This is how the European Commission sees the issues in their most recent definition.

Many companies of course, are completely unaware of this. There are also few methodologies and processes to make the above happen.

The future for research and action must be to put resources on the table, collectively, to research and test these. Tools, case studies and repositories of knowledge will of course be key here.

This is how we’ll close the gap between stated aspiration and practice.

I see his point of view. Not all that new in some ways, but a helpful reminder that missing words can matter.

It a very risk and impact focused philosophy though. Does such an approach discourage the opportunity side of (more) sustainable business?

*Just to underline we’re talking here about wider business impacts on society – part of the challenge is that even those able to consider concepts of impact assessment still tend to limit this to inside the firm.


Discuss this and other key topics in CSR / sustainable business with dozens of working managers on this management training course starting this coming week. More info and details are here: http://www.getting-to-grips-with-cr.com/fe/39831-introduction

1 Comment

  1. Interesting exchange, however i doubt that the concept of responsibility will necessarily be better understood by the same group. The problem with non financial consequences is that they are difficult to fully capture unless you look for them specifically, through impact assessment (IA) or other methods. Often IA is not a legal requirement or can be a requirement with reduced scope that does not capture all consequences. Therefore the decision to look for consequences and how broadly to cast the net, is dependent on the company vision and values. Impact Assessment can be a very participatory process so it could assist in capturing views of multiple stakeholders and their perceptions of consequences (intended and unintended). As long as non financial consequences remain externalities, it will be a struggle to bring them within the decision making process. Several topics are now addressed routinely as specific industries have developed a better understanding of them – however the tendency is still to get a quick and dirty understanding of the consequences of company activities. I am not sure that the emphasis on responsibility will make the system any better, as we might still focus on the explicit responsibilities (such as legal)

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