Is the way we talk about sustainability teams preventing us from driving change?

I’ve had a lovely Christmas this year, spending time with family and friends, and finding the time to look back on 2014. So I should be writing a blog post about the year just gone, or looking forward to a fresh new year.

But once again – call it recency bias if you will – I find myself troubled by a phrase that came up more than once towards the end of the year, from friends and colleagues alike.

“My job is to put myself out of work.”

If you work in sustainability, you’ve probably used it yourself, or at least heard it from someone else. That someone might even have been me, because I’ve certainly employed it on occasion. It’s a lighthearted way of communicating one of the most important goals of sustainability: to embed social and environmental concerns so firmly into core business strategy that we no longer need a team of people to keep them on the company’s agenda.

But I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this expression… and it’s only recently that I’ve realised why not.

I began to notice the same kind of discomfort I get whenever someone says – always with the best of intentions – that “parenting is the hardest job in the world”. I can see the point they’re trying to make, and it’s a good one. Parenting is uniquely challenging, requiring commitment, consideration and persistence.

A paid job can also be uniquely challenging, and many of the same qualities will help you succeed. But that doesn’t mean the comparison is a good one. Beyond the general sentiment of “they’re both challenging pursuits and both worth your time”, the demands of parenting (and other forms of caring) are so different from those of paid work that the comparison doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

(Incidentally, the value judgment implicit in the comparison above annoys the hell out of me. I don’t believe we need to judge parenting on the same terms as paid work in order to make it worthwhile. But that particular rant is out of the scope of this article.)

In the same way, beyond the sentiment of “we’re trying to affect core business”, I don’t think there’s much that stands up to scrutiny in the idea that sustainability teams want to make themselves obsolete. And that’s not because we have some sort of “vested interest” in the end of the world, as that odd little climate change-denier argument would have it, but because we don’t really believe that one day, in a few years’ time our work will be finished for good.

Right now, we’re helping businesses make the transition from focusing on short-term shareholder revenue to long-term societal value. Once we’ve made great strides in this area, you can be sure that another transition will be required. As long as the world keeps on changing – and I don’t see any evidence that it’s planning to stop – there will be a role for an engine of change within every company. The team that delivers this is likely to look and sound very different from today’s sustainability team, but it will still be there.

I think there’s a big risk in using this innocuous-sounding expression in front of people who are our potential allies in driving change. We risk them mishearing the message “we’re here to become part of core business” as “we’re not really supposed to be here… and we’ll be off as soon as we’ve won a few battles.” We risk them concluding that sustainability is a temporary threat to the status quo – and that means we’ll need to win them round again when the next challenge arises.

The essence of my objection is this: by framing the role of the sustainability team in a way that borders on the dismissive, we may well be diminishing the importance of our field to the future of business. In my view, it’s better to be honest about what we’re fighting for: a long-term commitment to reflecting our society’s values that, far from going away, will only become more challenging and nuanced as time goes by.

So I’m starting 2015 with a resolution: to say out loud to as many people as possible that I’m proud to work in sustainability, that we’re here to stay, and that both business and the world will be a better place if we do. And I invite you to do the same.

Image: B.Duck Motion Speaker 07 by Tommy Tsutsui is licensed under CC BY 2.0