Doing What We Can With What We Have — Pursuing Sustainability Through Big Picture Thinking

In this week’s newsletter, our lens is turned to the ways in which we can develop effective sustainable business practices – and how we often fall short in our attempts.  

What are some of the major obstacles to new businesses becoming sustainable, and how do we overcome them? What can we do to prevent undertaking endeavours that are more performative than they are effective or lasting?  

Sustainable practices boost opportunities to attract investors, attract and retain customers and staff, and contribute overall to the resilience, longevity and success of businesses over time.  

However, in pursuing these goals, companies may find themselves “ticking the correct boxes”, by answering customer calls for certain action, or adhering to legislated sustainability requirements, but still miss key opportunities to build truly authentic and impactful methodologies for making lasting positive change.   

Beyond Net Zero 

One might be cynical and ask why, if it satisfies investor or customer, or even legislative needs, businesses need bother with digging even deeper into the why and how of becoming sustainable.

Cinthya Sopaheluwakan founder of The Big Picture consultancy that works in the intersection of strategy and storytelling, addresses just that when she guides organisations into an understanding of the importance of true and authentic engagement with sustainability ideals and actions.   

With an approach that ensures that interests in both the Global North and Global South are understood and respected, her methodologies are simultaneously hard-hitting and optimistic. Cinthya generously offered some advice on our questions about the realities of developing our business sustainability protocols. 

Cinthya maintains that businesses start their approach by understanding the real impact of their behaviours, and building a strategy upon that.

If we fail to truly understand the scale of the problems we are addressing in the development of our sustainability strategies, we run the risk of building hollow and less effective tools that could at best waste time and resources, and at worst do damage – to the environment around us and to our businesses themselves.  

From client call-outs about ‘green-washing’ or ‘green-hushing’, resulting in brand damage and loss of income; to engaging in ‘sustainable’ practice that inadvertently causes harm to the environment or communities, the risk is significant and unnecessary, and can be avoided if we simply do it correctly from the very start. 

“Help! We don’t have the resources!” 

The mere thought of having to do “more” can be overwhelming for many businesses, particularly small ones with limited resources, and this is something that Cinthya wholeheartedly acknowledges.

As somebody whose role it is to demystify and provide clarity on all that sustainability entails, she understands the anxieties and reluctance of business leaders to do more than meet basic sustainability requirements. But basic requirements and achieving net zero is, simply, not enough.

With our climate in peril, inequality running rampant, and the world crying out for better, fairer, ways to live and work, it is apparent that if we are to make any effort at all, it should achieve the maximum amount of positive impact it possibly can.

In the process, this will serve the needs of the organisation itself by developing an unshakeable foundation and solid identity/brand that can withstand unexpected challenges that may arise.  

For businesses whose resources are minimal, Cinthya is pragmatic. Tackle the most pressing issues first, as well as those easiest to implement.

While this may satisfy basic needs or adhere to the ‘bare minimum’ of sustainable practice, what is important is that it does not stop there. That is, we should start somewhere, in ways that are achievable and effective, and then continue our actions in order to fulfil the ideals we set. In other words, we should: 

  • Build a philosophy or strategy that looks at the big picture and continue to work toward achieving it. Start where we can and move on from there. 
  • Start early, build it into the very foundation of your business. 
  • Be practical about where you can be most effective, and where your impact can be regenerative. 
  • Start simply by reducing negative externalities.  
  • Ensure that your activities are aligned with your raison d’etre, your reason to wake up in the morning. This consistency will ensure that you pursue these activities with enthusiasm and they will be more likely to achieve lasting success. 
  • Delegate/assign tasks sensibly. Collaborate with sustainability champions and ambassadors within your company, but ensure that they are compensated fairly and not unduly burdened by the extra work.  
  • Understand the pervasiveness of sustainability needs across our organisations’ operations – every employee can take responsibility for making their activities more sustainable. This goes beyond physical operations that impact the environment and can include the way we market, our hiring and recruitment practices, and beyond. 
  • Listen to the voices of those who are underrepresented in your network and social environment. They are likely to offer valid views that may show you ways that your strategies might have unintended consequences or influence. 

A simple action for a complex issue: zoom out 

Embedding sustainability into your business needs neither be a facade of buzzwords and empty trends, nor a seemingly overwhelming project of costly and time-consuming activities.

What is core here, is understanding that there is more to sustainability than recycling and offsetting our carbon emissions.

Sustainability is a deeply complex concept. Influences such as colonisation, all forms of inequality, resource access and management, and so much more, are constantly in play. Which is why zooming out and seeing our own work and impact as part of a larger picture is key to building sound sustainability practices in our organisations. 

Unintentional negative outcomes from sustainability initiatives include such common examples as: 

  • Organisations or individuals ‘discovering’ a new tool or resource to become more sustainable (such as plant-based alternative to meat, or the banning of certain plastics, for example), that inadvertently negatively affect people or the environment (e.g. farming meat alternatives damaging ecosystems or plastic-banning harming communities where no alternatives exist). 
  • The perpetuation of biased language and thinking when engaging with sustainability action – with many based on Eurocentric ideals and needs, and ignoring the impact upon or needs of those in the Global South, for example. 
  • The exploitation of people and communities in an effort to make our own environments more green.  

Cinthya is optimistic, however, about the incredible potential that exists, as well as the will there seems to be, to build better businesses that impact our world positively.

There are many places to start at, no matter the resources we possess, and opportunities to tap into, collaborators to connect with, and avenues to take, in our pursuit of incorporating sustainability into our businesses.  

Align your values to your story 

To conclude, we return to the most fundamental tool we have: the very stories upon which we have built our businesses. All businesses have a core story. Who are we, what do we do, what do we stand for and how do we wish to co-exist in our world?

If our stories are aligned to our sustainability strategies, we are on a good path to achieving our sustainability goals. If profit and growth are the only motivating factors in developing our goals, our sustainability ambitions will ultimately suffer.  

The beauty of aligning our stories with our strategies is that it allows us to present our work and our identity with authenticity and conviction.

What better way to build a strong identity and public image than to showcase what is true about ourselves without the need for embellishments, cover-ups or other narrative alterations?  

The journey may not be comfortable and, indeed, comfort is rarely a pursuit for those seeking excellence in their business. And so there is great potential for critical engagement, leaps of progress, and innovative change when it comes to sustainable business today.   

Sustainable Business at SHE 2023 

Sustainable business is an important part of our mission to drive DE&I at SHE 2023, and we look forward to our speakers and businesses highlighting this topic for our large audience.

Both in-person and in our digital offerings, we have resources to help you strive toward achieving your sustainability objectives and take those important steps toward a more just, more exciting and better functioning world. Visit our conference website for more information

Thank you, Cinthya Sopaheluwakan for your thoughtful responses to our questions on this topic! For additional resources you can visit The Big Picture.


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