Greener Pastures

A couple of years ago, most tree huggers were out in the wilderness, yelling to be heard. Now many are cozied up in the boardrooms of Canada’s most powerful advertising and financial corporations.

Or, excuse me, that should read: many triple-bottom-line sustainability consultants have now formed strategic alliances with brand-management and strategy firms.

Does this kind of doublespeak prove that sustainability has finally arrived? Or does it simply show that the new greenwashing machines are spinning faster than ever?

The most recent, and possibly biggest, example is Echology, a partnership launched in April between Junxion Strategy and Palmer Jarvis DDB, a multinational advertising firm headquartered in Vancouver. The story, as Junxion’s principal Peter ter Weeme tells it, is that a few years ago while working with DDB, he said, “Hey, your guys’ mandate is to be the most influential ad agency in the world. How can you possibly do that in the 21st century if you’re not doing anything around sustainability?” They agreed and hired Junxion to create and implement a plan that included social and environmental strategies.

DDB came back and said they’d like to be able to offer that same knowledge to their clients along with the communications strategies. They’d gain ter Weeme’s credibility and knowledge; he’d gain access to DDB’s huge corporate clients. Ter Weeme says this is hardly a sellout: Junxion retains its automomy, can reject any client and will bow out if DDB doesn’t stick to its own sustainability commitments.

Rob Abbot is another sustainable business pioneer. The former Vancouver-based consultant was running his own Calgary-based boutique sustainability firm before going to work at Deloitte & Touche LLP 14 months ago. Why? “I ask myself that every day,” he says, laughing. He wanted to “get greater access to the executive suite,” and being able to leverage the other services offered by Deloitte – consulting, tax, assurance – he finds businesses are willing to make deeper and wider-reaching commitments to sustainability. “I had a client where we showed them that if they made payments into a technology fund, something they wanted to do anyway, those would be fully tax deductible.”

Abbott and ter Weeme are the real thing – experts in sustainability driven by values to make a difference in corporate Canada – and are doing great work, according to Coro Strandberg, an independent sustainability consultant based in Vancouver. But she won’t be joining them. “I don’t want to spend my time recruiting or managing staff or doing admin,” she says. That’s inevitable, she adds, when working in a larger organization. She prefers to remain “fleet-footed,” put all of her time into the strategy itself and stay at “the creative edge of sustainability, the vanguard,” which isn’t possible within a bureaucracy.

But all three say there’ll be more of this. That’s because, in the early days, before the business case for sustainability was proved, companies would only invest in it for altruistic (read: hippy) reasons. Then a few started doing it to differentiate themselves from their competitors or to comply with new regulations.

But with new reporting that proves the impact of sustainability on the bottom line, Strandberg says there’s been a sea change.

Adds ter Weeme, “We’ve moved beyond companies asking if there is a business case to saying, ‘make it happen – fast.’ ”

Abbott says that companies are realizing that if they want to attract investment, lower capital costs or keep customers, they need to show they are in touch with realities. And many realize it’s easier to invest now than to wait until new regulations are passed.

So can we definitively tell whether corporate Canada is starting to live the gospel or is just spinning us around?

“Without seeing their reporting or being privy to closed-door conversations, we can’t,” says Strandberg. But she says greenwashing can actually be a good thing. When a corporation spins the green yarn, stakeholders inevitably say, “What are you actually doing about that?” Then, explains Strandberg, the companies are forced to figure it out and actually do something.