Whose job is it anyway?


Happy 2015! May all your flowers bloom and your sustainability dreams come true!  Also, may you have wonderful new dreams which in turn inspire you to further advance the all-important sustainability “project”!

At the end of my November 2014 blog post, I alluded to the topic for the next blog. So, as promised, I am devoting this January 2015 blog post to the role of enterprises in sustainability education and awareness creation. More specifically, I’ll attempt to address the question posed earlier; whether or not enterprises have the responsibility and moral obligation to educate and enlighten employees on sustainability even if this means going well-beyond what these enterprises are looking to specifically achieve via their self-focused programs. Furthermore, if that is so, is this something which happens through consensus and self-enlightenment within the business community or is it a requirement imposed by the relevant authorities?

Firstly, a little detour

I was recently reading various materials in preparation for completing an (unrelated) assignment. In an enlightening book chapter, Reddy et al (2000, pp.30-32) explore the resource use patterns of small scale, traditional human communities and that of certain foraging animal species. The authors point to various examples of self-imposed resource conservation strategies amongst both. Examples are provided of harvesting restraints arrived at in small-scale human societies through either trial and error or in accordance with religious, spiritual and/or cultural beliefs and norms. It is probably fair to assume that the latter proscriptions may in turn have had their origins in earlier generations’ experience based learning. My assumption is that these lessons and guidance were then woven into folklore and religious teachings to be passed on to future generations. Such insights are shown for instance to not only shape harvesting patterns but also encourage the creation of safe or harvest-free zones referred to by the authors as “refugia”. Safeguarding natural resources in such a way are shown to contribute towards the “resilience” of the communities concerned.

It strikes me that in these small-scale human communities, sustainable behavior guidance and education are integral to the cultures and daily being of the groupings concerned. It is also true that the feedback loop involving human action and ecological impact is much more direct, observable and tangible. One can imagine a member of one of these communities providing the following explanation: “I remember that a few years ago,  we over-fished that particular area, immediately following which there seemed to be less breeding and hence our harvest fell short of our needs in a subsequent year. We have learned from that painful experience and now deliberately limit our fishing in any particular year.” This seems like a perfectly reasonable and logical sequence of events. So why one asks is our planet’s health in such peril? The reality is that in our large-scale, multiple location impact and industrialized world, the feedback loops simply do not operate in this manner. Where sustainability messages are woven into cultural and other prescriptions, these are likely no longer fully attuned to the daily realities of life in such large-scale societies.

Now to the question  

If sustainability learning does not occur as an integral part of our communion with the world we inhabit, how is this educational need to be best dealt with in a general sense? Is this the task of the Public and NGO sectors only? I’d submit that the state has an important role to play amongst others through ensuring sustainability is an important constituent of each and every citizen’s basic education. Furthermore the various organs of the state can play an important role in creating awareness and in ongoing education and message delivery. It does seem to me that the public sector’s effectiveness in this area requires a commonality of purpose and an alignment of sorts amongst the various elements of the state.  Needless to say this is easier said than done. My impression is that much of the awareness and ongoing education which happens in the societies I am familiar with is led by the NGO sector. This does make for a diversity of messages and “ideologies” depending on the needs, specific priorities and positions of the NGO bodies concerned. Notwithstanding this significant contribution, I think it irresponsible to expect of the NGO sector which is generally under-resourced, to bearing a disproportionate load.

To the Private Sector’s role

Opportunities exist for impact through the awareness which can be created in the course of private enterprises’ commercial and go-to-market activities (including value chain management and product marketing). Most of these activities will inevitably be centered on what is best for the specific value chain elements concerned and are not necessarily focused on creating an awareness of what lies beyond these elements. Am I, as a member of the consuming public touched by what leading companies are telling me about the thoughtfulness and care with which they produce widgets? Sure. Does it help my general appreciation of the challenges we face, or does it provide me with the basic conceptual and terminological building blocks to better understand these challenges and purposefully shape my own behaviors? Likely not.

As employers, private sector enterprises impact the lives of a material numbers of people around the world. It goes without saying that this impact goes beyond the individuals directly employed, extending to varying degrees to family and other social circles. Most large-scale enterprises have the ability to deliver messages and “quazi-educational bits and pieces” to their employees on a tailored and highly cost effective basis (consider virtual classrooms and e-based learning for instance). The employee base represents a captive audience and communications feedback loops are relatively easily implemented (surveys, internal social media and e-based evaluations to name but a few examples). What about the obstacles? There are risks associated with employers undertaking more general sustainability education and awareness creation as opposed only to more narrowly focused product or value chain-related activities. These include an employee backlash about being “preached to” by the employer and internal public debates which while necessary may serve to discredit the efforts of employers. In some cases employee apathy and even work- as well as messaging overload may further complicate things.

Action counts above anything else

Are these potential pitfalls reason enough for private enterprises to steer clear of the opportunities available to them? I believe that none of the potential obstacles highlighted earlier need be reasons for not tackling this important task. The sustainability challenges confronting the world are clear and present. Without determined and broad-based action, these challenges cannot be addressed successfully. Rather than arguing over who has primary responsibility for amongst others education and awareness creation, I would submit that all the players involved need to apply the resources and reach available to them to make a difference. This includes private enterprise.

Is there a moral obligation to act and/or must private enterprise wait for governments to clearly articulate or even regulate the educational and awareness-creation requirements applicable to the private sector? Rather than debate these questions or wait for answers, I’d suggest the real questions to be addressed are;

  1. Is a general understanding of, and an inclination to personally act in relation to sustainability challenges and opportunities within the employee population, in both their own and the employer’s best long term interests?
  2. Does the employer have the capabilities to deliver this education and increased awareness to its employee base?

If the answer to both questions is affirmative, not much more needs to be said and we can “rest the case”.

Work with me

My next blog post in March 2015 will deal with “inspiring action”. Curious?  You’ll have to wait and see what we dish up then. In the interim I’d welcome comments on both the present and my earlier post. As I might have indicated earlier, I am rather thick-skinned and will therefore not be overly sensitive to well positioned criticism. Instead I’d appreciate the opportunity to hear the views of others, learn more and debate the key issues.

Welcome again to 2015!


Gadgil, M., Heman, N.S. and Reddy, B.M. (2000) ‘People, refugia and resilience’. In Berkes, F., Folke C and Colding, J. (eds.) Linking social and ecological systems: management practices and social mechanisms for building resilience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.30-47.    

Graphic courtesy of & borrowed from:


The Road to “Everywhere”


“The Mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action” Sometimes things simply stick. I came across a journal article many years ago, the title of which included the above phrase. Over time memories of the details have faded, but the phrase has stuck. It is a constant reminder of how much of what we do, we base on assumptions and heuristics which have become well-ingrained over time and not particularly amenable to alteration. The article authored by Langer et.al (1978) reported on an experiment in which subjects were given various types of information structured in different ways. The intent was to understand how the information so provided, informed particular reactions. The bottom line was that unless there was something about the structure or content which really got their attention, subjects typically responded in ways which reflected little or no notice of what had been handed to them – hence the catchy phrase. Essentially, unless something extraordinary happened, they glossed over what had been handed to them, automatically categorized the message and responding in predictable ways.

The reality is that the average individual working and living in the typical enterprise organization today, is bombarded with masses of messages aimed at persuading, aligning and reinforcing views and subsequent behaviors in ways consistent with the organization’s norms, desires and intents. Rather than pass judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing, I raise this here simply because it is a reality of daily life for millions of people. It also has important implications for communicating sustainability messages. Step outside of the enterprise and the messages, while more diverse (ranging from commercials to calls for public service action), are even more “24/7” or “wall-to-wall”. Not necessarily all good and not necessarily all bad, this simply is the way things are. It is no surprise that individuals develop recipes for managing and making sense of it all. My assumption is this happens mainly through one or a combination of screening out or auto-categorizing message content.

It is in this jungle of information over-growth and generic, conditioned responses to handling and screening all the incoming stimuli, that informative and persuasive sustainability messaging happens both within and beyond enterprises. In an enlightening article, Adam Corner (2012) outlines some of the demographic and psychographic factors which come into play and predispose individuals to interpreting and responding specifically to climate (and presumably also other sustainability-) related information. So apart from ensuring that information and education-related messaging gets noticed and pass the normal filters, it is necessary to take account also of predispositions and stereotypical views within the target audience specifically as these relate to sustainability content. Corner spoke during our Cambridge MSt workshop in September 2014 and I was fascinated by the examples of research focused on sustainability and climate change-related communications which he alluded to at various points during his session. Clearly lots of nuggets in there for those charged with communicating in this field within organizations.

Communications and organizational culture are inextricably linked. Yes, culture is enduring and a lot more than merely the sum total of communications within organizations. It is however reasonable to assume that a reciprocal “shaping relationship” exists between the two. As enterprises work to build a consensus supportive of comprehensive action on sustainability and enrich the existing culture with sustainability “strands”, communicating effectively and credibly must surely be an essential element of what they do.

A related “basket of stuff” to think about for the next post is whether or not enterprises have the responsibility and moral obligations to educate and enlighten members on sustainability even if this means going well-beyond what these enterprises are looking to specifically achieve via their self-focused programs. If that is so, is this something which happens through consensus and self-enlightenment within the business community or is it the stuff of imposed requirements? Quite a bit to mull over!

CORNER, Adam. (2012) Science literacy and climate views. Nature Climate Change, 2(October), pp. 710–711

LANGER, Ellen, BLANK, Arthur, CHANOWITZ, Benzion. (1978) The Mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of “Placebic” Information in Interpersonal Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), pp. 635-642

 Graphic courtesy of & borrowed from:  http://www.hrinasia.com/tag/communications/