Why Sustainability? is an essay series in which we invite sustainability practitioners to answer that pointed question. If you’d like to share your own answer, contact us.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of sustainability not as something we do but as something we cultivate. As individual actions that advance not our own immortality but the ability of humankind to endure. A business doesn’t practice sustainability. It manages for sustainability: its ability to sustain itself into an unknowable future—as the institutions of our forefathers did in order to preserve resources for us today. In managing for sustainability, a business manages for the future while attending to what’s important in the present.
But how do we get to what’s really important? By listening carefully, and by considering how what we do and say affects the world in which we operate—and live. By understanding the context in which our actions occur. And by working with what’s available while keeping our eyes on what’s possible.
For any business, getting to what’s possible requires eyes-wide-open courage—moving with full knowledge of the risks, guided by a vision that may be incomprehensible to those who see merely what’s available. Leaders who exercise that courage judiciously have been rewarded consistently by employees, customers, and shareholders alike.
Take Gap Inc., for example. In 2004, Gap published a sustainability report that was breathtaking in its transparency, shining a light on an issue—human rights violations in the retail apparel supply chain—that many would rather have left in the dark. Following a collective gasp, there was . . . nothing. No lawsuits, no boycotts, no capital flight. It turns out that Gap had set the new standard for transparency in reporting on supply-chain issues, which investors, corporate clients, and individuals who buy just about anything truly do care about. And its good reputation has endured despite subsequent revelations of labor issues among some of its suppliers, mainly because stakeholders, recognizing that Gap has an infrastructure in place to address these complex issues, have confidence in the company’s ability to manage them.
My own interest in cultivating sustainability—as a way of life and a living—grew out of a worldview that values justice and sees everywhere evidence of the interconnectedness of our world. They’re principles that I brought to the office and sustained in my days as an attorney; but now, they bring me here each day, to work that sustains me and makes a difference for our clients and those who rely on them.
We ask a few things of our clients: that they consider new perspectives, be frank in assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and aim for responsiveness and transparency.
In turn, we ask of ourselves that we listen carefully for what really matters, bring our full body of experience to bear in every circumstance, and be fair in our appraisals and unflinching in our recommendations.
We’re not activists, but businesspeople; we examine all sides and take a pragmatic approach. We advocate courage, but gently, and with a deep understanding of and regard for the complexities that people—because what are companies but groups of people?—face every day.
And in gently pushing, we help our clients—and not least of all ourselves—get a little bit closer to what’s possible.
Kate Rebernak is Framework’s founder and CEO