The Responsible Business

On May 4, at the Living Futures conference in Portland, I had the great pleasure of hearing a keynote by the uproarious Carol Sanford. Her latest book, The Responsible Business: Sustainability & Success, voted one of the best business books of last year, outlines stories of 30 companies that became more socially responsible—without ever declaring their intention to do so.

The funny thing about this book on sustainability is that the author hates the term.

“I know nothing about sustainability,” says Sanford. “I don’t even know what that is.” Her publisher encouraged use of the word to boost sales, but Sanford was hesitant. “I don’t work for corporate responsibility. I work to make great businesses.”

For Sanford, greatness in business means shifting away from conventional goals. Sustainability often is defined by the Triple Bottom Line, which expands the concept of value to include not just economic but also social and environmental value. Yet, as Sanford points out, these terms are “still within the limits of the old choices.” To unleash the full potential of business will require turning the whole idea of value on its head: “A Bottom Line is what is left after all is made and sold. Top Line is the growth of health of the stakeholders and the system that ‘makes them up’ as it works together.”

Sanford calls this new notion of value the Quintessential Top Line, which reorganizes the traditional “supply chain” as a collaborative network of value creators. It “embraces suppliers as co-creative partners, not merely links in a chain.”

This vision of supply chains as a mutually supportive community explains her aversion to the term sustainability. “People talk about sustainability as being about how the ‘parts’ come together. Nature doesn’t work like that. There aren’t any ‘parts’ in living systems.” There are no parts, there is only the whole. “You have to think of a whole within a whole, like a tree in a forest.”

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