By Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins
Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.
Last month, in anticipation of the COP21 meetings, my blogging partner, Katrin Muff, wrote about hope for a miracle in Paris. Her desire was for global leaders to come together to create a positive force in the world to address climate change. Now that the meetings have concluded, I believe most of us would agree that her hope was realized. The outcome of the COP21 was an ambitious multi-country agreement that moves us forward in addressing the urgent issue of climate change. However, as Jeff Nye states in the title of his recent SustainAbility blog, We’ve come a Long Way from Rio but the Real Journey Starts Now. He argues that this treaty merely “fires the starting gun on a quest to deliver a carbon neutral economy within the lifetimes of our grandchildren.”
While each of us owns responsibility for the achievement of this bold goal, individuals can only go so far in addressing the problems. For example, business enterprises contribute a large percentage of GHG emissions, through energy use, production processes, and greenhouse gases in products. Thus corporations have an especially critical role to play if we are to achieve the treaty’s targets.
While some economic sectors are likely to be impacted by the agreement more than others, (see the EPA’s report on The Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2013) all companies can anticipate encountering the need for change. In his discussions at COP21, Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, advocated abandoning business as usual. And there are lots of signs that companies agreed to do just that. For example, 114 companies signed onto the science-based climate goals in partnership with CDP, the World Wildlife Fund and the U.N. Global Compact. The purpose of these collaborations is to assist companies in building low-carbon, better businesses. These partnerships represent only one of several business alliances that have come together to tackle the climate change goals laid out in the treaty. See A Cheat Sheet to COP21 Pledges.
While I am encouraged by these activities, I nevertheless wonder if corporations are really up to the task. The questions that linger in my mind include the following:
- Will companies change their company identities, communicate a new vision, revise business plans, and promote an organizational culture that can enable all of the above?
- Will they embed sustainability considerations into their core business?
- Or will they merely try to hammer their new commitments into their current business models and cultures, and relegate sustainability to projects that are peripheral to their core?
Through my consulting practice, I, along with my team, work with large global companies. Most of the top-level executives state that a commitment to sustainability is important to their long-term success. Yet many if not most times we find that their employees lack awareness of their leaders’ commitments and actions regarding sustainability. Likewise, a very large percentage of employees fail to grasp how sustainability relates to their own jobs. Interestingly, most of the leaders with whom we work have been caught by surprise by their employees’ lack of awareness and understanding of the companies’ goals and actions regarding sustainability. They seem to be less alarmed that their employees don’t connect with sustainability within their own contexts.
In general, we have reached the conclusion that either the leaders have not communicated nor demonstrated their commitments clearly, or their companies have not actually incorporated sustainability into the core business. They most certainly have not embedded sustainability into all of their underlying processes or their employees would be more aware of how sustainability relates to their jobs. Yet all of these conditions are necessary if the leaders want to have a truly significant impact. Moreover, if the leaders wish to pursue the opportunities that the Paris treaty offers, they must enable an organizational culture that can support their endeavours.
Indeed, as Katrin stressed in her November blog, we are all in this together. In the long-run our world has much to lose if we do not meet the goals established in Paris. Businesses play a vital role in our actually reaching them. Some companies will experience threats in the short-term due to business models that may not be in sync with the agreements. On the other hand, the treaty also offers companies many opportunities. Those companies with leaders who can see the potential, act on the possibilities and truly enable a culture that can support the efforts will come out ahead of those who fail to do so. My New Year’s wish is that corporate leaders will take a hard look at their business models and their organizational cultures and will ensure that both are congruent with the challenges ahead.
Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants, a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.