Trapped by Success: Thoughts on Sustainability in Business Following SB’15 San Diego

Sustainable BrandsFew weeks ago “Mad Men” ended with Don Draper’s “om” moment followed by a 1971 Coca Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” While the “Mad Men” series is sadly no longer with us, the Mad Men era is still very much here.

No, not the ’60s, but the era of consumerism that started back then, where a call for “new day, new ideas, new you” (as prayed for by the guru running a meditation in the last scene of “Mad Men”) inspires new ads rather than ways to make life better.

I thought about the last scene while watching some of the live-streamed panels and presentations at the Sustainable Brands 2015 conference that ended yesterday. The annual conference in San Diego is an inspiring event with great speakers and an audience that is part of and leads the sustainability in business movement.

Sustainable Brands founder and CEO, KoAnn Skrzyniarz, kicked off the conference, and among the issues she addressed was the pace of change. She told the audience how she’s still surprised to hear in some circles that nothing is been done when it comes to sustainability in business and that things are going too slow. She said that the expansion of the audience and its activities indicate that “we’re definitely accelerating our momentum.”

She also mentioned the following points to make a stronger case for acceleration in the activities of the sustainable business community (copied from her presentation):

  • We are becoming better at seeing the problem/solution set differently, looking at whole systems
  • You continue to be willing to experiment, risk, share
  • More and more new data sets/tools available enabling innovation, consumers choice
  • More data shows this is good for business

I think KoAnn is partially right. Companies indeed move forward at an accelerated pace when it comes to sustainability, but the problem is that the challenges they face seem to be moving forward even faster. The result therefore is that, while it may seem as if companies make progress when it comes to sustainability, they actually move backward or stand still at best.

To figure out how to change this state, we need to understand the problem, and the problem I believe is that business is “trapped by success.”

At the keynote he gave at the DMI conference last year, Prof. Richard Buchanan explained that ‘trapped by success’ means that when you succeed in something, you tend to do more of it. Buchanan went on to explain that it also applies to business with lines of products and services that work very well. Then when circumstances change, he continued, companies find themselves unprepared, as they are trapped by their own success.

This is the situation I see with most companies when it comes to sustainability. They are aware of the sustainability challenges they face, have some idea about the necessary solutions and are even open to collaborating with other companies, including competitors, to truly address these challenges. However, they are also successful enough in what they’re doing so they continue to do it. I’m not talking about a specific product or service, but about the business model. When it comes to the way companies operate, it is still very much business as usual.

I wouldn’t like to ignore the progress and innovation we see in business when it comes to sustainability (as presented at SB’15), but I believe that the changes most companies make are at the edge, not at the core. I know that change takes time, but the problem is that we don’t have much time because the challenges we face don’t stand still. Not at all.

Unfortunately most companies don’t see it yet. The tragedy is that, for most companies, climate change is still a vague threat, and the change in consumer perception about social and environmental issues doesn’t translate yet into action, at least not on scale. What we’re left with is a business model that seems to be working quite well and sustainability challenges that are believed to be adequately addressed with measures that don’t get the organizations out of their comfort zone.

This is good, but not good enough. Companies need to find a way out of this trap and do it not tomorrow but now.

Andrew Zolli, the author of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back,” likes to use the analogy of a car approaching a cliff, “a climatological point of no return,” when talking about the major challenges we face.

“Imagine a car speeding toward a cliff. The brakes are gone. For the people in the car, the top priority is finding some way to stop the vehicle before it reaches the precipice. At some point, however, the car will reach a point where — even with the best braking efforts imaginable — inertia will still carry it to its doom. Once the car has crossed that point, the passengers probably shouldn’t still consider how they’re going to slow the car down. Instead, they must start thinking — and fast — about how to survive.”

We’re in this car. Companies are in this car. They need to understand that the Mad Men era — when the cliff was nowhere to be seen — is over. So is the short period of time when we actually believed we could somehow make a U-turn.

Now it’s time for companies to face the reality and understand that the framework has changed, as well as the expectations from them when it comes to sustainability: Either they get out of their ‘success trap’ and search for radical innovations that will smooth our way down, or else it’s going to be a much more bumpy and unpleasant journey.

Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.