Lessons from history: why what we say about sustainability matters

This piece was originally published by  Guardian Sustainable Business. I didn’t particularly like the way they edited it though, so here’s the unedited version…

What does the history of the American progressive movement in the early 20th century have to do with sustainable business in the early 21st? A master’s degree in the former may seem like an odd way to prepare for a career in the latter. But that’s the path I chose. And lately I’ve been reflecting on the relevance of my academic research to my day-job and discovered some unexpected connections.


My postgraduate thesis was based on the idea that the words we use to describe things matter a great deal. Around the turn of the last century, progressives in the US managed to capture and re-define a number of the key terms of political debate. This linguistic victory wasn’t the only (or even the most significant) cause of the legislative and societal changes that swept through America in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But, given that the so-called “progressive movement” was so disparate that, at times, the only thing its members agreed upon was the label “progressive” itself, words certainly mattered.

And they still do. This is a lesson that the modern sustainable business movement seems largely to have forgotten. Too often good intentions are mired in linguistic incoherence. Companies seem to choose labels at random: CSR, Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship are all used more or less interchangeably, with only the true aficionados able to tell you the differences. The trouble with this inconsistency is that it creates false divisions where none should exist.

The wider eco-system that has emerged around the issue of sustainable business is even worse in terms of the proliferation of jargon and new terminology. Organisationally and linguistically, we’re a fragmented bunch. There’s conscious capitalism, breakthrough capitalism, long-term capitalism, capitalism 2.0 (or even 3.0)… the list goes on. B-Corps jostle with social businesses and mission-driven organisations for the limelight.

None of this negates the fact that there are people doing fantastic work under all of these banners. But until we can agree on a common language we won’t see the systemic transformation that so many of us aspire to.

That’s where the history lesson comes in. The genius of the progressive intellectuals in late-nineteenth century America was that they didn’t invent new labels. Instead, they sought to subtly shift the definition of keywords that already resonated with the public.

In their hands, individualism went from being shorthand for an absolute adherence to the doctrine of laissez faire government to being an argument for an activist State in certain areas. They managed this trick by arguing that the over-concentration of power and wealth was holding individuals back from fulfilling their full potential. Surely, they said, an individualistic society is one in which self-fulfilment is attainable for all.

Similarly, democracy morphed from being merely a form of government to being a way of life. It went from meaning little more than voting at elections every four years to something much more holistic that encompassed all of society – paving the way, in due course, for full-blown social democracy.

In the same way, today’s battle over the heart and soul of business will be won not by inventing new and unfamiliar labels, but by changing the ideological content of the corporate world’s core vocabulary. Rightly or wrongly, the terms sustainability, social responsibility and citizenship have a negative connotation in the eyes of many businesspeople – just as socialism did to the American electorate in 1900. The progressives didn’t change the American people’s mind about socialism, but they did manage to convince them to swallow many aspects of a socialist agenda, by making their case in language the public already understood.

So the lesson for those of us who want to see a new era of progressivism sweep through corporate capitalism is that we should re-direct our intellectual firepower. Rather than devoting our energies to making an ever stronger case for action on sustainability, we should focus on disputing, refining and evolving the accepted meaning of terms like efficiency, free market, value creation and leadership – words that already strike a chord with the mainstream of global business.

Efficiency, we should argue, is a jolly good thing, but it doesn’t just mean minimising financial costs. It means putting all resources – human and natural, as well as financial – to their best use. Similarly, a free market is not necessarily equivalent to an unregulated one, especially when some players in the market get so big that they are effectively able to abrogate the freedoms of their smaller competitors.

Michael Porter and Mark Kramer were really onto something when they wrote their now-famous HBR article on ‘creating shared value’ in 2011. Even four years ago, none of the ideas they espoused were particularly new or radical. Their genius was to couch those ideas in the language of value creation – a language that the global C-suite both understands and respects.

At a recent event in London, Tony Juniper, a former executive director of Friends of the Earth who’s now an author and sustainability advisor to big business, made a strong case for speaking in a language that resonates for corporate executives. After decades of experience as an environmental activist he’s come to the conclusion that, when engaging with business, it’s more effective to frame sustainability as a risk issue than as an ethical one.

Leadership, which is the particular focus for the organisation I work for, is another term whose meaning is evolving. I often get asked what our definition of good leadership is. I could say, it’s leadership that’s conscious, authentic, values-driven, compassionate, courageous and inclusive; but I generally don’t. Not because I’m lazy or can’t remember all those words when put on the spot, but because each one of these qualifying terms provides an opportunity for the person I’m addressing to say “ah, sorry, that kind of leadership doesn’t apply to me and my organisation.” My goal is not to see terms like authenticity or consciousness spread – it’s to see them become redundant.

100 years on from the crowning achievements of the last progressive era – votes for women, the popular election of senators, the formation of national regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve – we are on the brink of a new progressive moment. Business has replaced politics as the most important arena in which reforms will be enacted and the conversation has moved from the national to the global level, but the dynamics of change remain largely the same. Looking back could yet be the best way to help us move forward.

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