During a recent webinar at Six Seconds’ Vitality conference, Dr. Paul Stillman asked a question: Can we change the way businesses define “sustainability” to have real impact on the future of people and the environment? Paul is Senior Consultant for Vital Signs, our integrated suite of organizational assessment tools, at Six Seconds. In his talk he identified a number of threats to our continued existence, from climate change to species extinction to economic collapse. Dr. Stillman said the word “sustainability” needs a new, deeper definition to avoid being co-opted by companies attempting to greenwash their harmful activities. In the context of global social and environmental challenges, Paul shared his groundbreaking research into the organizational cultures of four companies seeking to embrace an ethic of sustainability.
Dr. Stillman’s research uncovered many factors, from how these companies treated their employees, to how they related to the community, to how they worked with partners across the supply chain to ensure they were embodying the company’s social and environmental values. Although he looked at four diverse organizations, including a large land-grant research university, a small solar energy company, a major outdoor apparel retailer, and a unique novelty food company, they all sought to embed their mission and values in everything they did. In one case, at the prompting of employees, a decision was made NOT to bid on a major contract because the client was not aligned with the company mission.
Company leaders and employees, in many cases, were actively involved in both local and national social and environmental campaigns. Many still struggled, however, with balancing ideals and practices, how to carry out a sustainable mission in a profit-driven world, as well as how to live a sustainable life. Many of those interviewed said that, above all, relationships matter. Employees were treated as real people, allowing them to show up as whole human beings, rather than checking their personal lives and emotions at the door. In return, the companies became more vital places to work. Perhaps the most far-reaching was relationships with suppliers.
By looking deep into the supply chain and figuring out how much they needed to pay for their suppliers to be able to pay their workers a living wage, the companies spread their values far beyond their own employees. By supporting worker health and safety, sustainable agriculture, community outreach, and political action, these organizations are able to have far greater impact.
After presenting his research findings, Paul linked the exemplary values, practices, and processes he uncovered to the Vital Signs model, providing an intriguing glimpse into how the two could be combined to foster organizational vitality and sustainability.