There is a lot of talk about sustainability these days, and the term is now a major topic for businesses discussed at The World Economic Forum’s Davos conference. For a company to become sustainable, it must first-and-foremost adhere to the guiding principles of human evolution.
The interest, chatter, and karma around sustainability generally center around a few elective business etiquettes designed to reduce the “footprint” of business in nature. Nice sub-optimization perhaps, but still destructive. Less evil is still evil. And less evil does not yield sustainability.
Indeed, sustainability for companies must be taken quite a bit more severe than riding a bicycle to work for a photograph published on the new human resource website.
The Paradox of Evolution
In my advisory role to many types of clients (including governments) looking to change their future, I focus on a more all-encompassing and genuinely impactful implementation of sustainability, one I align directly with nature’s evolution.
For a company, defined as a group of people collaborating on a business opportunity, to become sustainable its people and business strategies must adhere to nature’s evolution, or it will just perish. So, we must pay close attention to a few pertinent lessons of sustainability evolution has honed and demonstrated to us over three billion years.
First, sustainability in its absolute sense does not exist. For nothing in this world is truly sustainable, not even the world itself. Planet earth is estimated to last for another five billion years or so before the heat of the sun will scorch it down to unlivable for humans. So, for practical purposes, we refrain from considering the extraneous impact of the cosmos and define sustainability as far as our imagination stretches, our best proxy of human absolutism described as “until the end of our time”.
Second, sustainability amongst changing externalities depends on the constant adaptation and renewal of supporting resources. Few of the world’s resources are supposed to exist or live for five billion years, so renewal and displacement of each resource is needed to support the moving goalposts of sustainability optimally. Even the timely death of each of us is a harsh but vital ingredient to the evolution of human sustainability. Human sustainability is not secured by each of us attempting to live as long as possible, but to renew ourselves with the strongest gene-pool possible.
Terms of endearment
The indiscriminate use of “sustainability” and “renewable” in many publications highlights the depravity of reason and confusion caused by the confounding of evolutionary consequence and cause. So let’s clear the air and repeat after me:
To achieve a proxy of sustainability, renewal must be at its cause.
Pay attention to some companies that have begun to align themselves with the paradoxical nature of evolution. Shell Oil renamed itself to Shell, as for Shell to become a sustainable company it cannot be dependent on oil as a non-renewable resource. Steve Jobs renamed Apple Computer into Apple, as for Apple to become sustainable it had to rely on products that may not involve the sale of a computer. But then he made a mistake; he designed a pivotal product strategy that is non-renewable, wait for it.
Evolutionary awareness has far-fetching consequences to the way we create and grow a company, one in which the constant evolution of renewable products and services secures a proxy of sustainability.
The Human Element
However, we tend to associate sustainability solely with the natural resources available to us. Forgetting the most crucial element of a sustainable company is the human element. The role of humans not just as productive employees, but also as loyal customers and faithful shareholders. Sustainability of a company cannot be achieved without the renewable interests and trust of all these humans.
The pivotal human in this triumvirate is the role of customers, as more satisfied customers will drive the interests of shareholders, and subsequently, by their increased investment employ a more substantial number of employees. The crucial question, therefore, becomes how to identify sustainable customers.
The naive answer marketing people are taught to deploy smart positioning meant to lure customers in to accelerate purchasing behavior of prospects by using a clear message, meant to entice them all. Reality is, customers make up their minds as to why they are interested in buying a product. Many reasons unrelated to feature-set, instead contemplations associated with the snowballing (business) risks involved in a purchasing decision. Procuring sustainable customers, therefore, requires more than the sale of a point-product. Instead, sustainable companies must understand evolutionary needs.
A company is part of a broader competitive ecosystem all aiming to fill an unmet need or want of customers. An entity-relationship model of many-to-many representing a marketplace. A global marketplace connecting sellers and buyers in which the perceived value of a product or service from a seller is eventually exchanged for trust – deployed by money – from the buyer.
Rules of the road
I’ll spare the more profound economic logic for now, but marketplaces can only become sustainable when they adhere to the stringent operating principles of a meritocracy, which in turn can only be built on the paradoxical rules that secure a free-market mechanism. In such a way that the evolution of a seller’s wants and needs are continually aligned with the development of a buyer’s wants and needs. With the company reflecting an evolution and an ethos, a customer can continue to stand behind.
To elaborate on Steve Jobs’ mistake: Apple iTunes’ implementation of the agency model for the sale of digital media is unsustainable, for it is in blatant violation of freedom to both buyer and seller. But Apple is far from alone. Facebook deploys an oligarchically controlled distribution of information sponsored by advertising, in violation of the evolutionary principles of freedom and thus also unsustainable. Most companies today violate the rules of our evolution, and therefore will after a brief period of excessive populism merely perish. And not in a renewable way, for the public trust has been tarnished by the trojan horse of evolutionary deceit.
For a company to become sustainable, it must do more than hastily apply the term sustainability to its public relations collateral. It must understand and implement the operating principles that secure access to all of its renewable resources, including its most important but often neglected resource: humans.