What if Good Business Sense Doesn’t Make Sense?

I was the last of five speakers at a local business school’s Sustainable Business conference a few days ago.  The experience should have left me feeling encouraged at all the good things happening across industries.  But instead, it left me heartbroken.  Soon, I know my sadness will turn into strengthened resolve to share the new story I see emerging in the world — one with life at the center of its plot.  But I think the sadness is also part of that story.

The first three speakers represented companies whose activities are very harmful to the environment and who are making impressive efforts to be less bad.  But they’re still incredibly harmful.  I realized this as I sat listening to the first speaker, and suddenly I felt lost and alone, like I accidentally showed up at the wrong party. Why were we celebrating these companies? Couldn’t the organizers find anyone who was doing impressive things and actually doing no harm?

To make things worse, each of the corporate representatives made the point that their sustainability efforts were secondary to profit.  The woman from a large hydroelectric company started her presentation with that point.  “Sustainability is also about the sustainability of the company,” she said, and if they can’t make a profit on something, they’re not going to do it.  For example, she said that they wouldn’t change all the toilets in a building if it weren’t the natural time to do that or if they couldn’t recoup their investment in a certain number of years.  It also has to be profitable to them.  This sounds logical.  But what about just doing the right thing?  What about doing everything in our power to ensure that life can continue to thrive on Earth?  What is that worth?  And who decided that a company must be sustained at all costs?

At another point in her presentation, she had a picture of a beautiful river on 2 screens behind her and she was talking about how they want to put a dam there, but they’re being really responsible by working closely with native people and doing a thorough environmental impact assessment. Someone in the audience gently raised the point that there is public opposition to the project and that many people think they should reduce consumption and increase efficiency of transmission lines instead of adding capacity.  And she said that in reality they’re doing all three — that even with reduced consumption and increased efficiency, they still want to do the dam because they can make a lot of money by exporting that extra capacity.  And that was the end of that.  So I sat there looking at this beautiful river and I thought, my God, that’s an acceptable answer here: we want to destroy this living ecosystem because we can make lots of money.  Hey, why not just kill random people on the street and sell their organs?  That’s probably quite profitable, too.

She ended her presentation with the amount of profit returned to their single shareholder, the provincial government: nearly $3 billion.  Wow, I thought: how much is enough?  At what level of profit would they feel that they could afford to do the right thing just for its own sake — that they could afford to protect and sustain life, for its own sake — not because it would earn them even more money?

Then there was a company that purifies heavy metals and sells them to solar panel companies, among other customers.  They’ve received a string of environmental awards because they contribute to solar energy, and they also developed a way to recycle the heavy metals once they’ve been used.  But they see the recycling as a competitive advantage, so they’ll only provide that service to their own customers.  No one else in the world has the technology yet to recycle heavy metals, which are extremely toxic to all forms of life.  But this company refuses to recycle the stuff unless it was originally bought from them.  Someone raised the question: have you thought about charging other companies a premium to recycle their heavy metals, even though they didn’t buy it from you?  That way it would be profitable.  And the answer was that that wouldn’t make business sense because their goal is to try to get everyone to buy from them in the first place.  It wouldn’t make business sense.  It’s more important to try to thwart a competitor than to do everything in our power to ensure the continued viability of the human species.

I felt nauseous.

Even the fourth speaker, offering a short version of the Al Gore presentation, felt like the same old story, for understandable (but still frustrating) reasons.  The first part of the presentation outlined the dire situation.  And then the punchline was about how working against that situation makes good business sense: it helps you reduce costs, retain top talent and build a good brand image.  It’s all true.  And clearly, this line of logic has been the motivation of the first three companies in the line-up.  But just as clearly, it leads them to act only insofar as it makes good business sense.  And to me, that isn’t far enough.

It broke my heart to see how disconnected we’ve become from life, that this line-up of people could stand up and say that protecting life doesn’t make business sense, and that we, a roomful of people in the audience, calmly sat there and accepted that logic.

I want to change the definition of “good business sense.”  I want to help people see that life is the real bottom line — that the goal is not sustainability but thrivability.  I want to figure out how to tell that new story more courageously and compellingly and frequently.  And I want to find ways to help people connect with that story and make it their own.

The sadness is still here.  But I feel the resolve kicking in.

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