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Sustainability And Color: Moving Beyond Green

In a recent EL column, John Rooks, president of The Soap Group, a company that focuses on sustainability communications, wrote that “colors don’t work well for movements.”

I disagree.

In fact, colors have played an extraordinarily important role in social movements throughout history.

How about the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

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Or how about the work of Petra Kelly to form the Green Party in Germany, which radically changed the face of German politics (both conservative and liberal)?

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Or how about the red hue of the Russian Revolution?  You might have doubts about its outcomes, but it’s hard to argue that color wasn’t an effective tool of the movement.

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It is essential to move beyond green as the sole signifier of sustainability. History and the public are fatigued by “green” and already rejecting it outright. While the reasons for this are manifold, a primary factor is the excess of green nail painting by companies who are distorting the human desire to improve our world, or “greenwashing.” We track this epidemic on our blog The Wash.

But the fundamental reason “green” lacks as an expression of sustainability is because it narrows the conversation to ecology. While ecological issues touch every part of life, there are other issues (poverty, the price of a loaf of bread, the rights of women, the cost of heating bills) that are frequently deprioritized by “green” debates. We need an integrated view of sustainability instead. One that includes the four components of  Social, Economic, Environmental and Cultural and asks that the rights of a mother trying to afford her child enough protein to thrive can be kept in balance with the desire to ensure that milk is organic.

The point is to build a broader platform than green: at Saatchi we’ve called this movement Blue.

I gave a speech on the Birth of Blue last April. At the time the green movement was in its ascendancy and I was attacked by some who said I was over-reacting by preparing a more mainstream movement for people living paycheck-to-paycheck. Today, most people are tightening their belts, and the only social change they can afford is change that will help them live healthier, happier lives for less than they were spending last year. Sustainability offers beautiful solutions for them, but only if we go far beyond green.

So when Rooks says Blue is ultimately “nothing more than a new flavor of vanilla ice cream… a skipping stone, superficial and doomed to sink,” he misses the point.

Particularly in these tough economic times, it’s critical that we address the basic needs of people first, ideally by saving them money through sustainable innovations. But I have no time for 800-thread count recycled organic bamboo sheets right now. It’s an excellent green innovation, but surely not Blue. We are preparing for a world with 9 billion people, and we already have plenty of suffering on the planet to deal with.

Our first concern is how to reorient the world toward this more holistic view of sustainability. At Saatchi & Saatchi S, we work with corporations because they can create the level of impact that the world requires right now. With the election of Barack Obama, I hope we have a partner in government once again in our efforts, but plenty of people still care more about their brand of soda than they do about their member of Congress. So you start by reaching people where they’re at. People today are making values decisions right in the aisles of the supermarket, so that’s where we need to reach them. The good news is that companies who do this well will find themselves with lower operating costs, happier employees, high quality merchandise and permanently infatuated consumers.

Rooks concludes with a beautiful turn of phrase, “Sustainability is transparent, void of obscuring color. It is clear, open, and visible. Sustainability is naked.”

Transparency is one big part of sustainability (or more accurately, building sustainable organizations), but it’s not the whole story. In our experience working with some of the largest companies in the world, and some of the best emerging sustainable businesses, there are three characteristics to a sustainable company.

They function in a cycle.  Transparency, Engagement and Networks. Only a company that has all three can be truly sustainable. Transparency allows a company to share information inside and out, build metrics to increase quality and to shine a light on waste and organizational failure. Engaging employees is absolutely critical as well, because sustainability can’t be mandated from the top-down, it must invade every process, every decision. And finally, a sustainable company needs to be networked. It needs to take all of this information and all of these engaged employees and empower them to connect to people and organizations outside their walls. When the stock market swoons, even the best business plan is vulnerable; only by being connected to the broader needs of society can a business survive and serve.

Four years ago I co-founded the Apollo Alliance with the idea of using clean energy investment as a way to create jobs and stimulate the economy. That was rejected as well by people who said we couldn’t afford the deficit spending and that people didn’t really care about energy. Today it seems likely that a new President will be launching exactly this program. Big ideas can take some time to settle in. But I don’t want to work four years for Blue to take hold – there’s too much at stake.

Adam Werbach is CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, the sustainability division of global ideas company Saatchi & Saatchi. His next book Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto will published by Harvard Business Press in June.

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