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A Diatribe: Engaging Conventional Business Thinkers with Sustainability

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Sometimes the inevitable is just too hard to get to. Misguided assumptions, traditions and all sorts of randomness can get in the way of doing good business. In both the case of the women's market and now, the sustainable consumer market, plenty of decision-makers still hesitate to make the effort - even when it is clear that there is no turning back. Yet,having to serve those markets is... inevitable.

With that frustration in mind, I turned my attention to a new Catalyst study about engaging men in gender initiatives. And, there are parallels between gender and sustainability initiatives that are worth a look.

In fact, Catalyst's findings about the barriers to men's engagement with gender initiatives (similar to their barriers to engagement with marketing to women) look suspiciously like barriers to the engagement of conventional business thinkers with sustainability. Consider the following:

Myth: Sustainability is something that only matters to a few, Birkenstock-wearing, co-op shopping folks. So, give the pursuit of it a small budget and treat it like an "initiative." Then, you can safely say "we tried it," and stop funding it when it doesn't immediately succeed or make the company loads of money.

Reality: Just like a brand's approach to the women's market, sticking just a toe in the overflowing waters of sustainability is a big mistake. Sustainability has to be pursued as a long-term commitment, with very clear knowledge of the consumer values around it, or those many people now committing to change their buying ways will not buy your story at all.

Myth: Businesses have to go it alone and be "tough" (manly) to be successful. So, never let consumers or your competition see you sweat or stumble.

Reality: Just as with the women's market, you can't reach the sustainably-minded consumer effectively without taking a few risks, and acknowledging missteps or forming new partnerships to innovate in your industry. As the authors of Women In Green so aptly put it: "Manly green separates; womanly green unites."

Myth: If an issue doesn't affect the decision-maker(s) personally, it doesn't matter.

Reality: How can workplace gender issues and marketing to women not affect you personally? Most people have a wife, sister, niece or daughter who will be affected or influenced by both. And, the same is all the more the case with sustainability. When you drink water or care how your neighbor is treated on the job, sustainability (in the form of public health and community good) is an issue. In fact, sustainability can't be separated from an individual's human-ness, whether in their business or consumer role. It seems safe to say that most humans are driven to be productive and successful. We want to live comfortably now, BUT STILL desire to leave the world in the same shape - if not better - so future generations may also thrive.

The Catalyst study mentioned the fact that some men are unaware of gender issues or assume that because they are men it really isn't a discussion for them (that gender discussions are, in other words, "for girls.") Conventional business thinkers may also sidestep their responsibility to pursue sustainability because they aren't informed and/or haven't taken the time to discover that it IS a discussion for every smart executive (not just "for hippies"). (For an example of a conventional business brain turned very successfully sustainable, read Ray Anderson's Mid-course Correction ).

The point is not to polarize the conventional and sustainable business mindsets away from one another. That gets us nowhere. Instead, the point is for all of today's business thinkers to innovate as they always have, but to do so within exciting new parameters that serve planet, people and profits.

Just like the marketing to women advice I often give: shut up about it, but do it! If the term "sustainability" makes business decision-makers uncomfortable, don't mention it. Just embrace the inevitable, commit to integrating sustainable development in to your business, and join today's wise and innovative business pioneers.