Published on April 26th, 2013 | by Tara Gould
Old Habits Die Hard – especially where sustainability is concerned
It’s crucial that big businesses change their ways, so why are many of them still digging in their heels?
We are living in changing times, in terms of climate, resources, communication and business. In order to survive, indeed to flourish, we need to have the courage to live and think in radically different ways. As well as embracing the necessary changes, it’s time to actively engender transformation, to accept that innovation is key to a safe and sustainable future.
The current model of business, which prioritises share holder value and profits over people, needs to move to a broader, customer-focused model with corporate citizenship at its heart. And although many forward- thinking businesses are grabbing the bull of sustainability by the horns and then stroking it very tenderly, the majority of the corporate world is sticking its head in the sand and hoping the bull will just disappear.
All businesses, big or small, are run by people; people with feelings, and flaws, and families to feed and dreams to fulfill. But when people resist the changes that will ultimately help them survive, there are usually a number of underlying reasons that first need to be addressed before change is possible.
In a recent interview Diane Coyle, economist, former adviser to the UK Treasury and BBC vice chair, spoke about why some businesses continue to resist change when it comes to sustainability. Businesses which have functioned successfully in the same way for generations see no reason to change; Coyle acknowledges that it can be a real challenge for companies stuck in habitual ways of working to adapt. Often businesses want to change but are restricted by obstacles such as regulatory controls, which may be combined with rigid social frameworks at the top. In other words, it’s always the same powerful people generating stale or conventional thinking. She encourages frequent shake-ups of corporate governors to stimulate fresh thinking and variety. But underneath all of this, she believes, there is fear:
“I think we are living in times of profound change which feel incredibly messy…people are in denial about the need to make quite dramatic changes”
Coyle believes the necessary moves towards sustainability require courage. Courage to act progressively in the face of a system that is moving slowly as a transformation occurs in the intellectual climate. She is optimistic however about the potential for quick and dramatic changes of perspective, citing the ban on smoking as an example of how social norms and attitudes can alter rapidly.
Fear and engrained habit may be partly to blame for many businesses’ reluctance to move forward, but greed and short-termism are also a barrier to innovation, and symptomatic of this capital-centric paradigm.
The publication of a report this year for the Labour Party reveals how short-term thinking is damaging the UK’s economic growth.
Sir George Cox, former Institute of Directors boss, highlights how short-termism is an ‘entrenched feature’ of the UK business environment, and that a lack of long term concern and vision results in a climate which:
“curtails ambition, inhibits long-term thinking and provides a disincentive to invest in research, new capabilities, products, training, recruitment and skills.”
But insecurity motivates a return to familiar habits. Radical changes in the corporate world are imperative, but unstable times create the need to return to what is safe and trusted, especially when a positive, believable vision of the future is not being generated.
In his recent article Editorial Director of Guardian Sustainable business, Jo Confino, highlights the fact that we need a positive and realistic picture of a future world that reflects the current and changing climate, both in terms of the planet, and its people:
“To create the pathway for fundamental change, it is therefore vital that we mainstream a credible vision of a prosperous future within planetary boundaries”
Confino puts the onus on the sustainability movement to create this, and says that so far they have failed to do so. He discusses how leaders and business directors are stuck because of fear, but also because there is no appealing alternative to move towards, and so any motivating sense of urgency is diluted. He suggests we need two things in these times of uncertainly and ambiguity: if one is a positive vision of a future world for us to look towards, then the other is the ability to stand in uncertainty in the interim, to relinquish control to a certain extent and be open to possibility. He says:
“As I know from experience, this is a difficult psychological place because it puts us in touch with our feelings of powerlessness. We try to avoid this at all costs, particularly those in so-called powerful positions who like to believe they are in charge of their destiny”.
Better the Devil…
This leads me full circle back to the problem of habitual thinking and behaviour, where a need to feel safe and in control often takes centre stage.
In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg explores the neuroscience behind habit formation and reformation. In an interview for the New York Times Duhigg discusses how habits don’t necessarily get engrained or reformed simply after hours and hours of doing the same thing, but often because of changing norms within society, which can be encouraged by positive legislature:
“We shake hands when we greet people, wear socks of the same color and eat with a fork because these are the customs we have learned. Such behaviors are not well-worn grooves in our minds, but actions we could easily alter if the laws or customs that governed them should change…Social psychologists have shown that an effective way of changing many habitual behaviors is to change people’s perceptions of the norms that govern them”
I think this is a really important point, especially if you consider how strange it now seems to see someone smoking inside, or not wearing a seat belt. It also underlines the notion that human habits are at least partly governed by our need for acceptance by society, and allegiance to ‘the group’.
Over lords and underdogs
The change in intellectual climate and the power of corporate reputation are taking their toll on businesses both big and small, while simultaneously having a positive impact. Growing a sustainable brand has got to mean becoming more sustainable, one informs the other and woe betide any businesses who dare to green-wash in these days of transparency and ethical consuming.
It’s easy to view big business as maligned and small business as benign. Many of us are in the habit of championing the little man, the underdog, but this too is just a habit. Surely it’s more complex than that?
From an optimistic perspective, it’s clear that there is a sea change in the way people view sustainability, however dawdling it may seem. On a micro level, our habits are changing. But still those that commit to putting in place the lifestyle choices that are required to generate real change are in the minority. Consumers have the power to alter and guide business policy, but what about the other way around? We all love to hate the big guys, but the truth is that the big guys have big resources, and so, by extension, when they change, they have the power to change consumer habits, and lifestyle choices in the mainstream.
In an ideal world, green evangelists and sustainability experts would motivate businesses with a strategy and vision for a positive future; consumers would influence businesses by buying ‘consciously’ and adding their voice and opinions to social media; and big corporations would persuade those who might normally turn away from green issues by building sustainable brands.