05/01/2015 11:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sustainability: A Matter of Soul

Photo: I. Rimanoczy

As a faculty member of the W. Huizenga Business School, I was recently invited to contribute to a paper edited by Prof. Frank Cavico about orientation for new graduate students. Based on his experience in orientation sessions, he had identified areas that were important to address when welcoming the new future leaders. These included ethics, leadership, social responsibility, legal aspects of business practices, and sustainability.

It is important, when starting an article or a presentation, to define the terms, so as to build a common language. But with Sustainability there are many different understandings and definitions - so many that it can become confusing. Is Sustainability a goal or a discipline? Is it the same as Corporate Social Responsibility? By CSR do we mean philanthropy? Is it about environmental practices? What about the social impact of our behaviors? Or is it about climate-- climate change, climate impact on business and society? Adding to the confusion is the fact that in any of these definitions or perspectives, one can find polarized interpretations:

Climate change is man made. No, it's natural.

It is a corporation's responsibility to care for social aspects and to give back to the community. Not at all -it should be up to the individuals to engage in community actions or giving, while the corporation has a responsibility to shareholders.

Governments need to intervene with better regulations and should place a tax on carbon emissions. Not at all: we have to let the market regulate behaviors.

And there is even a third interpretation, which holds that sustainability refers to the importance of, and need for, the organization remaining in business - and this requires to act in a sustainable way!

But what doesn't change, while we are debating and advocating for our preferred position, is that we have to face the consequences of climate events, be they droughts, flooding, hurricanes, salt water intrusion into the city's freshwater system, earthquakes and their impact on our life. We have to navigate socially violent times, as former Jesuit and peace activist John Dear observes in his book The Nonviolent Life. As humans, we have to cope with a lot that is new all while trying to maintain a 'life as usual' approach.

So what to convey to incoming students about sustainability? Is it a legal requirement, a moral issue, a strategic approach, an ethical requirement, a social duty, a convenient competitive advantage for a corporation? Or perhaps even is it something that is simply 'the right thing" for their future and their children's?

When Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief of The Guardian newspaper, announced in December 2014 that he was leaving his position in Summer 2015, he made a public commitment, to take the months he had left in his current position as a unique opportunity to stand up for climate change, by personally launching an awareness and action campaign to promote divesting from fossil fuels. As a man deeply involved in the daily news, he wondered if there was anything he could do, with all he knew about the seriousness of our planetary emergency. This is not different from the reports in recent studies about business leaders who described their motivations to champion sustainability. At some point they found that they had available sufficient information and had connected the dots - they saw a fuller picture of what was happening, and immediately asked themselves, How am I contributing to these problems? What could I do?

Interestingly, as a researcher, I have had a similar experience. The more I learned about the dire state of our planet, in social and ecological terms, the more grief and despair I experienced, the stronger I felt the need to do something about it.

It seems that when the awareness touches the heart, the motivation to act is unstoppable. This is an interesting cycle that repeats itself: we are exposed to information, at some point it becomes personal as we connect emotionally with the information - it's not just washing over us. The head connects with the heart, and the anxiety kicks in: I have to do something, I cannot NOT do something.

It is curious that despite this repeated sequence, we tend to fall back to a position where we seek to make the 'business case' so as to convince others; we want to find data to show the impact on the corporation's image, on employee retention, on market share, cost savings, efficiency, and bottom line...

I certainly agree that the visible benefits need to be showcased, but when it comes to motivating others to join the sustainability movement, the rationale is interestingly not the most powerful factor. In fact, it's the inspiration, the vision of a better future, the sense of a personal purpose, the need to make a difference, the desire to find life's meaning and our personal role in shaping a better world.

So perhaps the core of sustainability is spiritual, and we have a chance to reach the next step of human evolution. It's worth the try.

Keywords: sustainability, ethics, leadership, CSR, social responsibility, climate change, tax carbon, markets, non violence, peace, The Guardian, spiritual