The Sustainable Organization: Communicating Your Legacy
Bhumi Jariwala | March 2, 2016 |
Have you ever seen Cleopatra’s Needle, the Egyptian obelisk in in New York’s Central Park? I recently learned that statues like these were created to celebrate the legacies of Egyptian pharaohs. They can include elaborate details about victories, achievements, and good fortunes. Over three-thousand years later people still admire their symbolism.
Today’s society is no longer dominated by pharaohs or deities but by something much less mysterious: business. We don’t worship businesses to bring rain, a bountiful harvest, or new territories but we do look to them to bring us successful livelihoods and economic security. In addition, we are increasingly turning to business to play a more responsible role in society by adding sustainable value to the community. Businesses today are concerned with their legacies and they make it a point to give.
Legacy, Languages, and Vehicles
Examples of corporate altruism are all around us. According to Double the Donation, corporate giving programs account for billions of dollars in donations annually. Organizations donate money, services, products, expertise, equipment, and other resources. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported that over a dozen US companies, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Bank of America, pledged more than US $140 billion in efforts to cut carbon emissions as part of an initiative for the UN Climate Change Summit. Organizations are often also significant supporters of academic and cultural programs, and companies like Scholastic even track a “Companies that Care about Kids” list.
But are most people aware of these types of contributions? Like Cleopatra’s Needle, is there a more lasting way for organizations to communicate their legacy?
Let’s start with language. What concepts do organizations use to convey ideas like environmental impact, corporate social responsibility, and value creation? IFAC’s recent Accounting for Sustainability explains that many organizations use the term sustainability to communicate their impact on people and planet as well as profit. Businesses often like to see themselves as facilitators for the crucial relationships between these concepts now and far into the future. Are you and your organization sustainable? Then call yourself sustainable. Connecting action and language is a good first step.
But how else should you communicate this value? Generally, organizations tout their sustainable values in annual reports, websites, ads, and on social media. But these forms are temporary at best. Annual reports are yearly. Websites constantly evolve. Advertising can be synthetic—people may appreciate the wit of a good ad but are less likely to retain specifics, let alone the values of the company or product. And social media is momentary and constantly evolving.
But do legacy messages, which often imply broad, long-term contribution to society, really suit these disposable mediums?
The Challenge of Memory, Metrics, and Metamorphosis
The challenge of all these communication vehicles and message mediums is they may inadvertently weaken your legacy message.
Most lack an institutional memory. Annual and quarterly reports don’t collectively tell the story of a business or form a full narrative of what your organization has achieved in the context of sustainability. They may also contain brief sections on the history of an organization, its founders, and perhaps a timeline. But this is not a “live chronicle”—it doesn’t provide a full account with multiple perspectives; interviews with participants, stakeholders, current/past employees; and a consistent, longstanding record of events.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the metrics that lead to appropriate and sufficient benchmarking for sustainability factors are only beginning to be developed. For example, while the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has released its G4 Guidelines detailing specific standard disclosures into three categories—economic, environmental, and social—these standards are not used across all businesses. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) develops standards that help public corporations disclose material for broader decision-useful information to assist investors but these standards are still not mainstream. The International Integrated Reporting Council complements both GRI and SASB with its landmark framework for reporting on value creation over time based on a multiple capitals model (the six capitals are: financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social and relationship, and natural capital). But again, wide-spread adoption is everything, and not there yet. While these frameworks provide principles-based approaches to establishing metrics for sustainability factors, it will be interesting to see if such frameworks evolve into the universal languages of reference.
Lastly, in the Digital Age, the vehicles used to convey legacy information are still very much in a state of metamorphosis—websites, social media, and databases will continue to evolve into faster, more efficient tools each year. Consider if you saved your legacy on a floppy disk; almost no one would be able to access it now. Organizations’ websites are similar in that the public can only see the latest version at any time. According to a survey by Hubspot, 749 marketers from companies of all sizes found that on average marketers redesign their websites every 18-24 months. There goes your legacy—out the door with the old design. As for social media, who can say what platforms will even exist in five years, let alone 20?
The Obelisk of Tomorrow
Ancient rulers may have been concerned with legacies of conquest and power but today we are usually and collectively more concerned with building a legacy with sustainable values. The seminal report by the Brundtland Commission in the UK eloquently captured this sentiment: sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. While the Brundtland Commission didn’t address how to share and preserve your sustainable development efforts, it is something you should consider.
Instead of being carved in stone, the obelisks of tomorrow that preserve your legacy will hopefully use the most accurate, aesthetic technologies to tell the chronicles of organizations and how they helped create and sustain a better world for us all.