Looking forward and facing back
A few strong instincts and a few plain rules suffice us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
My firm (Terrafiniti) has recently had the pleasure of supporting Corporate Register’s CRRA 13 Awards, a unique, user generated sustainability and corporate responsibility reporting awards scheme.
This has given us a concentrated snap-shot of sustainability and corporate responsibility reports from companies of all sizes and sectors from around the world. It also provided us with an insight into the systems, standards and best practice approaches these companies are using to guide their activities or demonstrate their responsibility.
In addition to judging sustainability reports, I have also had the vast and eternal pleasure over the years to be involved in a number of best practice approaches and more formal management and guidance systems. These have included the SIGMA project – still one of the best sustainability management approaches in existence, the little known UK Standards BS8900 (Guidance for Managing Sustainable Development) and BS8901 (Sustainable Events Management) and the battle-scarred and possibly flawed ISO26000 Social Responsibility Guidance Standard.
A question that often arises, when discussing these and other best practice approaches such as the UN Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), is whether they give rise to more sustainable practice and, if not, why not?
Leading and following standards – how do standards arise?
Standards are developed for two main reasons:
1. Because something is already happening and it is considered mainstream enough to be codified into standard practice, and;
2. Because something is not happening that people think ought to happen and therefore a standard is developed to encourage it.
These two circumstances give rise to two types of standards; following standards and leading standards.
In sustainability terms, an example of a following standard is ISO 14001, which codifies generally accepted practice, whilst a leading standard would be ISO 26000. Other leading standards would be the AA1000 series – which seeks to stimulate leading practice in areas of activity that are new to many organisations.
It can be argued that such leading standards arise not from established practice, but a recognition of the gap between what is currently happening and what is required to happen in order to avoid undesired outcomes (e.g. rising social inequity, systemic economic instability or the total destruction of ecosystems and societies as we know and love them – little things like that).
For many sustainability practitioners, who believe that transformative change is required in relation to the scale of the sustainability challenges we face, leading standards are those we are most interested in, whilst following standards are those most widely employed in the marketplace.
Procedures for a sustainable world?
Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.
A common challenge in organisations is the substitution of procedures for devolved trust and decision making. When they get to a certain size, or have a bureaucratically minded leadership or culture, it is often supposed that strict procedures, permissions or systems will guarantee correct decision making.
This may be so where every aspect of a process is well established and known and there can be no possible utility in innovation or change. However, such organisations and processes are rare; most organisations can stand to improve their approach by encouraging and supporting creativity of thought and innovation in process but such behaviours cannot be mandated by top-down dictats.
An apposite example comes from was a project I was involved in a decade ago considering what a sustainable bank would be like. We heard from a small, ethical bank alongside a global financial institution. They both had approaches for assessing environmental and social risk in lending decisions. The small organisation’s process was shockingly simple – the happiness or otherwise of its staff – they discussed the potential decision and decided whether they were happy to accept or decline the lending. The big organisation had an extensive checklist approach designed to provide an entirely procedural solution.
Since that time one has quietly gone on to grow slowly with no fuss or scandals, the other has had more spectacular growth and become globally recognised as somewhat ethically challenged.
Principles based standards
If procedures encourage rote behaviour a solution can be to develop standards which do not prescribe specific activities but which articulate sets of principles to guide and shape actions. Conversely, with a very detailed approach such as that of the GRI, it is theoretically possible to look at the GRI index in an organisation’s report and to judge the level and quality of embedding.
For principles based approaches such a judgement can be much harder, it can be difficult to tell whether something has happened (or not happened) because of a set of principles because it is much harder to tell how individuals make decisions.
Proliferation – guidance for all?
In my previous life in the NGO world we often found that organisations were keen to respond positively to sustainability but just wanted to be told where to look to find out what to do. This is a seductive but problematic thing to achieve and has given rise to both a proliferation in the number of tailored approaches to support every possible combination of organisational sector and size and the exponential growth of more generic approaches.
For example, the GRI has expanded in both directions. Their core indicators for all companies have expanded through the lifetime of the initiative as has the production of sector specific supplements (now numbering 10 and counting).
Finding our way in the dark
Here is where we encounter a deep and fundamental challenge with sustainability – it is substantially unmapped territory, therefore it is difficult to say exactly what it will look like, and indeed how to get there. This is especially the case when the specific expertise and knowledge required in many areas to develop sustainable solutions lies with those currently involved in unsustainable ones. A standard cannot mandate such innovation and perhaps should not try to.
Stakeholder standards – do successful solutions really need consensus?
Consensus is very big in sustainability right now, and there are some good reasons for this. The AA1000 series, the GRI and ISO26000 all developed through huge, multi-stakeholder approaches which were based in consensus and which required that consensus for legitimacy.
Yet in the fast moving world of commercial products, consensus and stakeholder based development is not a success criterion. It could be argued that the same should go for sustainability standards.
Truly disruptive and commercially successful products are not the outcome of extensive stakeholder processes and consensual development. They are the products of creative activity, often from single individuals or flexible, capable small teams. Dyson’s cleaners and Apple’s iPods were just such products – successful because they redefined a market effectively, cleverly and elegantly.
Why should standards really be any different? Why is it not possible to develop sustainability approaches which are able to drive sustainable change, deliver viable long term decisions and are communicable to the wider world but which do not need the best part of a decade and the involvement of thousands to do so?
Massively detailed stakeholder derived consensus based standards and guidance, unimpeachable though they may be in giving everyone involved their voice, are really, really unlikely to stimulate the innovation, creativity and swiftness of action required to tackle fast moving environmental and social problems.
The innovation we depend upon for a sustainable future may be rooted in established practice but may be as different from that practice as night is from day. While standards clearly have a role in such a transition, they are unlikely to be our salvation.
This post was originally published on Green Conduct on 14/12/2012.