Sustainability: No Pain, No Gain…No Thanks
“Pain is never permanent” – Saint Teresa of Avila
When I ran cross country and track in high school, we used to stretch our cold, tight muscles before our warm-up runs, taxing them relentlessly in the effort to loosen up, rather than starting with a slow run to warm and gently loosen muscles before a more thorough stretching. And, it worked…even though it unnecessarily risked muscle pulls and worse. But, we were young. We were tough, or so we thought, and uninitiated in what we should be doing for our long-term resilience. It was a textbook case of that old adage, “no pain, no gain.”
A few years ago, a prominent line of thinking in sustainability was that organizations should not be fully credited for their progressive sustainability programs if they were good for their organizations from an economic or associated point of view – the rationale being that they would have done them anyway for business reasons, not for the “right” reasons, including civic, philanthropic or egalitarian considerations. We’ve moved beyond this somewhat, with professionals focusing upon integrating sustainability into their organizations, and interested stakeholders increasingly understanding the need for initiatives to make business sense, as well.
However, just like the “no pain, no gain” thinking persists in some degree in certain circles, so does a certain latent defensiveness when it comes to sustainability making good business sense. We tend to want to justify our actions, to explain that we undertook an initiative initially to be better civic partners, to solve a societal ill, or to help the planet. But, there’s sometimes a reticence to say we did so to meet a customer’s need, to provide returns for shareholders, to reward team members – all valid and appropriate reasons, too.
But, continuing to undertake initiatives that only hurt without providing tangible benefits, that are painful to an organization because they are isolated in their vision and limited in their scale, is not advisable for long-term resilience. Just as in running, pushing boundaries can be good – it betters our performance and leads to increased results. But, pushing through pain when it results in injury is not a good thing. It limits our performance initially, and jeopardizes our long-term participation in the sport. Just so with sustainability, I believe. Think about it: with long-term pain, we endure and cope with it, we do not prosper from it. And, we refer to long-term pain as being chronic, never sustainable.
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