Surfing the Sustainability Wave

I like to compare random thoughts and themes together to see if they’ll strike new ideas.

I’m going surfing tomorrow and thinking about sustainability is something I do everyday. So adding surfing and sustainability, what do you get? This blog post on surfing the sustainability wave.

I’ve been surfing before, alas 10 years ago, so I’m hoping I can tie in my previous experience, and my anticipation of this new one, to the concept of sustainability.

I figure learning how to surf is a bit like a company learning how to be sustainable. Here’s why.

You make a decision to learn how to surf.

Businesses need to make a conscious decision to integrate sustainability into everything they do. Just like my surfing, they make this decision knowing that there is a long road ahead, that it’s going to involve a lot of strenuous effort, and that it will involve a lot attempts to try and ‘get up on the board’ before arriving at real sustainability successes, each ‘fall’ teaching the business something new. Businesses may be forced to adopt some ‘sustainability’ due to external pressures like regulation, but this is highly unlikely to actually lead to a truly sustainable business.

You have to carry a heavy board to the beach.

Surfboards are heavy for a 17-year-old girl when you have to carry them for 30 minutes, walking to the beach (and back) – that’s one thing I definitely remember from my teenage experience. But you don’t have a choice. To surf, you need a board. Businesses have to carry their existing practices, products & services, cultures, management systems and so on. Do they have a choice? Not really. So they have to make do with what they have, though of course innovating around these challenges. In other words, businesses can’t just drop existing activities, practices and structures on the cusp of transition. They need to develop tightroping abilities to elegantly balance conflicting business demands: maintaining everyday operations to keep the business afloat, whilst simultaneously seeking to transform the very structures that enable those operations to run efficiently. Kind of like needing to fix the train tracks with trains still running on it.

You have to paddle out far enough from the beach to where the big waves are.

You paddle through a lot of bumpy waves before you get to a point where you can actually catch one. Riding that sustainability wave, i.e. reaping benefits from sustainable practices and getting to the point of where “it’s just the way we do business” is also a bumpy ride.

Paddling in surfing is like the groundwork a company needs to do to become sustainable. Riding that wave thus requires endurance. Businesses have to invest time and effort both internally and externally in order to see real meaningful sustainability gains and business rewards. This process may involve things like using different incentives to motivate and empower employees, engaging and collaborating with a more diverse group of stakeholders, implementing efficient organizational learning structures and innovating the company’s culture to allow one that embraces sustainability.

You catch a wave, but you can’t quite get up so you just try to stay on the board.

No one is able to get up on the board the first time around. I certainly didn’t. I barely bodyboarded it. But you keep trying until you manage to get up, for a bit, and then stumble back into the water. You have to try and get up on the wave, whilst your board is moving under you, whilst trying not to fall, whilst trying not to look like an idiot, knowing that everyone is watching you.

Businesses can’t expect to become sustainable overnight. They face obstacles along the way such as resistance from certain stakeholders who are change-averse, or constant scrutiny and criticism when they inevitably get some things wrong: M&S, for example, has had to cut out certain parts of its Plan A as it has been unable to achieve them as it was clear that achieving them would not deliver sufficiently meaningful sustainability gains to justify the cost of the measures. And everyone is always watching, some simply looking for opportunities to attack – just look at the heat some purely profit-driven corporates lumped on Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this sweater campaign.” It’s worth noting the campaign’s outcomes are also questionable – if you want to see a business perspective on this, then have a look at this HBR blog – other, more critical, views are available too…

You repeat that cycle quite a few times.

You fall but you get up again. Businesses do the same and through that undergo an iterative learning process. This cycle enables capacity building. Just as I learn how to get up on my board more easily each time, and get better at catching those waves, businesses ‘get better’ at sustainability. The more they get involved in it, the more they are aware of issues to look out for, how to manage trade-offs, what communications might work (or not), what stakeholders will expect… I suppose we could relate this to the so-called “incremental innovation”, which many of us are quick to dismiss. But it’s an important and necessary part of the process.

You catch a wave, surf it to the shore, and feel an immense sense of satisfaction.

I’m sure everyone knows the feeling I’m referring to: that incredible sense of satisfaction that cascades over you when you’ve worked really hard at something and finally succeed. Having met quite a few people at M&S when I wrote my thesis, I certainly felt they exhibited a sense of pride at how successful Plan A had become. And why wouldn’t they? Not only has Plan A eligibly led to incredible savings (e.g.: £50 million in one year alone, 2009-2010, two years after Plan A was launched), the company has arguably also had tremendous positive social and environmental impact (whether directly positive or by reducing negative impacts).

You have unintended consequences.

After my first week of surfing, I was able to do real push-ups. Something I certainly didn’t set out to achieve: this came about as a result of my intense daily paddling-out-to-catch-a-wave sessions. This can be viewed as a positive unintended consequence. But I was also left with horrendously sore arms and shoulders during the entire week – verdict? Not so positive (at the time at least).

The hunt for business sustainability can lead to both positive and negative unintended consequences. Negative ones are often due to a lack of a systemic view of problems where the interconnectedness of separate issues is not fully understood. There are endless examples of these – the food company that sets out to use biodegradable packaging only to discover the LCA is far far more damaging than disposable packaging; the logistics company that purchases a hybrid fleet only to discover that the extra weight of the hybrids counters the fuel savings (to say nothing of the battery LCA); or the well known green-backed rush for biofuels production, only to realise that tropical rainforests were being felled, and food crops being ripped out, to make way for biofuels.

But businesses can also discover unexpected positive consequences. Through the innovation processes that are integral to its ascent of Mount Sustainability, Interface developed a new type of glue, more environmentally friendly than existing ones – despite not being in the glue manufacturing industry.

So what next? Maybe I’ll write a blog when I return to see if my surfing experience has inspired any more sustainability allegories. If not, I can always revert back to learning how to play guitar, which is what I’ve been struggling with for a couple of months…

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