BP: Beyond Practical. The point(s) we’ve missed about sustainability

Many have observed that the BP oil spill is a reminder that corporate responsibility to community and the environment requires more than a clever re-brand.

There’s something missing from the conversation, however. These observations of BP (and the many companies who are very glad they are not BP), don’t seem to make the link between company displays of sustainability and the utter lack of a corporate culture of sustainability in so many companies.  No community investment, eco-certification or annual report can replace a culture of sustainability which would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the first place.

The recent intense focus on ‘the business case for sustainability’ retards, perhaps, business leadership (CEOs, COOs, CFOs) understanding and acceptance of the potential sustainability can have for a business.  Beyond the savings which result from eco-efficiency initiatives, beyond the increased stock value from consumers who trust the brand, beyond the practical benefits of recycling or supporting community, sustainability for business is more about philosophy and spirit that it is about any series of actions or stated commitments.

This philosophy of sustainability guides responsible actions and sparks innovation for better practices.  In a culture of sustainable business, certain decisions don’t get made because they violate the fundamental tenets on which the business-and the greater natural order– are based.  Reward systems are created to inspire greater commitment to the philosophy of balance and restoration than short term profit and exploitation.

Have you ever known (or been?) an absent parent or lover who substituted emotional investment with monetary investment?  The purchase of a new bicycle after a family argument, or the buying of flowers for the forgotten anniversary might serve as familiar examples.  But what would most people rather have?  Most would choose to have the heart, spirit and trust-affirming emotional presence of the loved one, rather than a material surrogate.

BP invested heavily in Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. Yet, in spite of their focus on the Carbon Disclosure Project, or their annual reports compliant with Global Reporting Initiative criteria, or their contributions in support of communities struck by natural disaster they, like so many companies, missed the larger point.  It might be said that The Deepwater Horizon tragedy was the result of a lack of corporate culture—an emotional investment in sustainability as a core value and business philosophy and way of working that would have prevented the disaster in the first place.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Michael. Great article. I absolutely agree with your point of the ’emotional investment’ as you call it. This commitment would have definitely prevented this disaster in my opinion. BP would have not come close to a disaster like this in my opinion if they where not driven my ROI, cost cutting, machoism, bribery, etc.

    Lets hope that this will rattle the cage of those companies that just want to go on with business as usual now. I think they will find it harder and harder from now on.
    We as stakeholders also need to make sure that this momentum is continuing. A advice from you on how to do this?

    • Michael Luehrs says:

      Thank you, Fabian. Your insight means lot.
      In my view, The formation of a healthy culture of sustainability is a complex process which will be unique to every organization. To get there, Individual leaders, or leadership groups, must first have their ‘Aha’ moment. The Ray Anderson ‘Spear in the chest’ moment, is an example. Here, I think that sustainability reports and carbon measurements and sustainable event initiatives can play an important role.

      I might add that leadership isn’t unique to people sitting in a boardroom. People at all levels of an organization have the ability to help influence those ‘Aha’ moments for other influential people in the organization.

      I believe that most business leaders will eventually arrive at a place where they are emotionally invested in sustainability due to the reasons you list and the powerful transformation that will define the business performance as a result. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take more tragedies of this scale to spark the epiphanies needed.

      many thanks for your thoughtful input.

      Are there others who have thoughts on this? Please share your suggestions, solutions and examples.

  2. Elizabeth Henderson says:

    Happy Canada Day everyone! One hundred and forty-three today. Patriotism aside, I do agree that simply following standards, guidelines or reporting templates does not make a sustainable entity. You refer to “emotional investment” in sustainability above; these wouldn’t be quite my words, but I get the idea of what you mean. You can’t just act it; you need to BE it, because it matters more than a dollar sign. It’s the difference between putting a nicely framed copy of a code of conduct on the wall and making decisions based on a deeply ingrained personal code of conduct. We say that people who have this are ethical and have integrity. I am sure there are many people within BP that are ethical and have integrity, but tradition and laws tend to make corporations faceless. In the US, for example, the law says that corporations must maximize profits for shareholders. I think this is beginning to shift to take into account stakeholders, not just shareholders, but legal change is slow and actual change probably slower.

  3. Guy Bigwood says:

    Elizabeths reply highlights a missing element for me. Why were BP and their platform management company allowed to operate as they did? I just read a very interesting article in Newsweek explaining how the previous US administration changed legislation and controls to make it easier for oil companies to act “unsustainably” in their drilling and production.

    This culture of sustainability that you talk about needs to reach right into the government. We see certain governments around the world taking this role – but many others sadly who need to step up and to help facilitate this new era of business sustainability. Lets just hope that the BP situation helps us all to focus.

  4. Nancy Wilson says:

    Let’s hope this tragedy is a wake up call for those in the US and World who still believe our old habits of consuming fossil fuels are sustainable.

    Thanks for this article, Michael!

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