Splashing around in the shallows

Just as the internet is eroding our attention spans, oceans of information may be diluting the corporate sustainability agenda, writes John Elkington. Do business leaders risk being everywhere and nowhere?

I’m not particularly looking forward to 2012, now just a year away. Among other things, it will mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1987 Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, which began mainstreaming the concept of sustainable development. Business and political leaders will no doubt turn up, but expect to see a re-run of many of the same problems that produced a flimsy outcome at the United Nations-led climate conference in Mexico last year. 

Key among these problems will be the intense media attention given to those who either think there is no sustainability challenge or, almost as bad, those who argue that we have everything under control. The hard truths are that we face a systemic challenge, we are very far from being in control – and that things will get significantly worse as we head towards a world population of nine to 10 billion.

The boom in corporate citizenship and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives may have been profoundly welcome in some areas, helping sensitise business to a growing range of economic, social and environmental challenges. But our progress to date is pretty much equivalent to arriving at the first base camp for anyone aiming to climb Mount Everest.

As we argued in Volans’ report The Transparent Economy: “It may seem strange to link the concept of sustainability with transformational change, when many business leaders who have signed up for what many of them dub ‘the sustainability journey’ see the main goal as protecting and conserving things – be they ecosystems, natural systems like watershed or fisheries, or indigenous cultures. But the uncomfortable fact is that the current economic order is not only socially inequitable but also environmentally unsustainable. So, whatever many business leaders thought they were signing up for, sustainability increasingly is likely to be an agenda of transformative – and often disruptive – change.”

All of this was underscored for me as I read a fascinating new book, The Shallows, sub-titled “How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember”. Written by Nicholas Carr, a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, this compares the internet with the Gutenberg printing press, which massively influenced how we thought, read and remembered. The process is happening again, he argues.

With the internet, one of the key shifts, writes Carr, is that everything has speeded up: “We want to gather as much information as quickly as your eyes and fingers can move.” We skim through websites, typically reading one or two pages at most before bouncing out or onward. The net effect, it turns out, is that we pay more attention to many different topics simultaneously, “but at a more superficial level, with the result that we find it harder and harder to read or think deeply.”

The good news? Our ability to scan, skim and multitask is improving – a helpful change as we are forced to deal with growing levels of complexity in our operating environments. But the bad news is that our ability to read and think deeply is eroding. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” notes Carr. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

In the process, a new “screen-based reading behaviour is emerging”, he concludes. It is characterised by “browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading and non-linear reading”. The internet may be making us smarter, but only if we define intelligence by the internet’s own standards. 

All this make me wonder whether current definitions of the corporate citizenship and social responsibility agendas aren’t shaping our thinking in similar ways, encouraging us to stick to the comfortable shallows rather than moving out into the deeper waters of true sustainability?

What we seem to be losing is the capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection”. Carr quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca, who, 2,000 years ago, said: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

If you follow this line of thought, then dilute versions of the citizenship and CSR agendas expose business leaders and their companies to an ever-growing number of issues, which they will be asked to prioritise and act upon. Do they risk being everywhere and nowhere at the same time? Granted, growing numbers of businesses now use computer-based tools to assess the “materiality”, or financial significance, of particular environmental, social or governance challenges. But is that going to be enough to turn the tides of information and concerns in which the future will immerse us?

My own view is that we will find new tools to help us cope with these challenges. And, in this churning ocean of information, the best companies and the most effective business leaders will work out how to navigate. One powerful way to do this is to work within longer time horizons, something that is absolutely essential for success in sustainable development, which involves adopting generational time-scales. And I’m not talking about the generational time-scales of microprocessors or MP3 players, but those of our human species.

In my experience, business leaders able to think and act this way are very rare. Among those I have worked with this year are Nestlé and Unilever, which both share a common characteristic – they (or their component companies) have existed for more than 100 years. Other firms that I have found to think long term are family-owned businesses. 

But mostly these are established, incumbent companies, which makes them averse to disruptive, transformative change. And that is why so much of my time these days involves working with people at the edge of the current economic system: the sort of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors who create sustainable products, business models and lifestyles. Our challenge for 2011 and beyond is to make sure that these folk get a proper hearing at the Rio+20 summit and elsewhere and, by doing so, help us all to move beyond the shallows.


John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility.

Homepage image from Andrey Burmakin