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Red Queen Sustainability

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As Alice learns from the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." The feeling is shared by corporate sustainability executives confronting the constantly shifting expectations of greater social and environmental responsibility. Call it "Red Queen Sustainability."

Red Queen Sustainability is an inevitable outcome of business stepping away from the now defunct social contract between business and society. In the old days, the frontier of social expectations was well delineated. Make a product people want, create jobs, follow the law and make a profit for shareholders. If a company did these things it was basically considered a good corporate citizen. But during the 1990s that all changed. Manager after manager was forced to concede that the borders of the responsibility frontier had been blown open. Child labor, deforestation, diversity, climate disruption, lobbying and more became issues for which business was held responsible. Corporate sustainability has been about finding the new boundaries of the responsibility frontier ever since. Unfortunately for busy managers, they keep moving off to the horizon.

GE's Katherine Brass, reporting on seven years of Ecomagination at the Sustainable Brands 2011 Conference, described GE sustainability leadership as "always looking for the next thing." Brass laid out a timeline of sustainability expectations -- the Carbon Disclosure Project in 2000, Climate Leaders in 2002, Green Suppliers Network in 2004, Carbon Trust in 2008 -- which GE confronted sequentially. But after each effort was accomplished -- "been there, done that" -- another demand appeared the horizon. The responsibility frontier was stretching and smart sustainability management at GE meant anticipating where the next bulge would form.

Once the boundary expands, it doesn't go back. That's because of an industry domino effect. Companies would like to differentiate themselves from their competitors on sustainability performance. That's why we see branded sustainability initiatives like Ecomagination, GreenWorks, Earthkeepers, PlanA, etc. But once a sustainability issue is publicly recognized by a leading company it puts pressure on its industry competitors to do the same. In this way "differentiated" sustainability commitments quickly become "generic" sustainability expectations.

Activist groups and no-profits are players in this dynamic, too. There are plenty of examples of nongovernmental organizations collaborating with companies: Sierra Club with Clorox, Conservation International with Starbucks, WWF with Unilever. But while the companies hope to distinguish themselves from their competitors, NGOs view these moves as a Trojan horse to get inside and transform, not just their corporate partner's practices, but every company in the industry. Once it's shown to be possible to adopt more sustainable practices at a leading company without going broke, competitors have little defense when NGOs demand that they adopt similar practices. When they do, the differentiated becomes generic, and the responsibility frontier irreversibly expands.

Sierra Club's GreenHome initiative extends the frontier with its methodology. The organization exists to help home remodelers find qualified green contractors and products. Contractors go through a GreenCheck process to make sure they are knowledgeable and capable about green building practices. The organization's director, Jennifer Schwab, says, however, that GreenHome recognizes that over time those contractors gain more experience and become more capable. Furthermore, green products and solutions fall in price and become more available. Recognizing this, GreenHome recalibrates the GreenCheck expectations and raises the bar for contractors. To help them move with the expanding frontier, GreenHome provides contractors with information and training to instill the new standard industry practice.

There is no indication that the responsibility frontier has been discovered. Perhaps, like Manifest Destiny, it will continue to expand until the land runs out to the sea. Smart sustainability leaders, however, are asking how they can get out ahead of the land grab. Companies can differentiate themselves on sustainability performance, but the time before an issue becomes generic is short. In land grabs, as in life, there is only one chance to be the first.

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