Being a Humanist in a Dark Age

32411 humanist dark age - Being a Humanist in a Dark Age

These are not good times for idealists – and they’re taking it out on everyone else.

As Jonathan Alter recently wrote, there are two strains of progressives:  idealists who feel that doing the right thing is everything, and who prefer being right to getting results;  and pragmatists focused on moving forward, who make deals and accept a less than ideal outcome.   Often – too often – those two strains are at war.

They certainly are today, a time when any compromise is viewed by idealists as selling out.  That dynamic is having a strong, and unfortunate, impact on sustainability in the workplace.  The sustainability movement is now moving from its initial high idealism for a sustainable planet and working with the reality that sustainability for corporate entities also includes sustainable margins.

Faced with this change, the idealists can’t take “yes” for an answer. 

There is much concern about greenmail—ad campaigns that purport to show a company’s social mission, that border on the fraudulent. Such claims deserve close and public scrutiny. But alongside that are many signs that companies are finding sustainable operations both profitable and desirable.

According to a new study by Calvert Investments and the Corporate Library, 65% of S&P 100 companies have board level committees with oversight of corporate responsibility issues. Sustainable Excellence, a new book by Aron Cramer of Business for Social Responsibility, and Zachary Karabell, tells the story of how CSR and sustainability is a key strategic area in companies like Coca-Cola, Walmart, IBM, Clorox, and Ford, whose previous records in this area are at best, spotty. Their key suggestion:  a company would do well to find a sustainability focused CEO to lead their company in the next generation.

Sustainability oriented CEOs are finding validation for their vision in practical outcomes.  Ante Glavas, a Bosnian who created a social responsibility program for young executives there, and now a business professor at Notre Dame University, has looked at dairy farmers, who are traditionally reluctant to join the green movement  because they feel it will interfere with the taste of their product, and its profitability. Glavas works with them to realize cost savings, and in so doing has come upon an additional benefit that has been found in many companies who take this path.

By involving employees in this process, farmers find that their employees like what they are doing. They get excited, feel more satisfied in their work, and employee retention is higher. Today, young people seeking a job will make green issues and social responsibility a key issue in their choice of where they want to work. They feel better coming to a workplace that addresses these concerns and, more importantly, gives them a role in doing something about them.

Companies that aggressively address environmental concerns and sustainability issues can be powerful change agents – but to do that the company must itself be profitable and sustainable.  This effort requires both top-down leadership as well as bottom-up engagement of employees. The challenge for any company is that few changes can be done at no cost, with no strain on the system. But the cost can be justified when there is a clear return down the road, and the employees make a clear commitment to success. In this way, it can be argued that the cost savings can include greater employee engagement, retention and productivity in the near term, which can help pay the start-up costs for the downstream green practice.

Companies should be encouraged to move in this direction, as long as their movements are sincere and meaningful.  But too often sustainability’s idealists prefer to beat up companies for what they’re not doing, rather than supporting their efforts and encouraging them to do more. 

This goes beyond constructive criticism, which is always helpful.  The strain of idealistic sustainability that denounces any company if every aspect of their work is not sustainable and environmentally conscious can cause us to lose sight of what is really going on. A global shift must begin with many local efforts, and, today, these efforts are good news, for a world that is increasingly dark and troubled.

NOTE: This post was originally published by the blog Triple Pundit on October 26th, 2010; it was co-written with Cynthia Scott, Saatchi, and Saatchi S.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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