What is environmental leadership? The answer would almost certainly vary over time and across audiences, but there are some common themes. In my view, environmental leadership can be described in five progressive stages of evaluation and insight, each one more honest and potentially impactful than the former. That said, someone else might see eight or three stages where I see five, and so the aim of this list is not so much to create conceptual buckets, but rather to give a sense for the direction we ought to head if we are to succeed in our quest for a sustainable and healthy planet.
Stage 1. Looking in the “Garden”
This is about asking yourself whether you are taking care of yourself. Are you, as a global corporate entity, using up natural resources on which you depend at a rate greater than they are being replenished? This can mean your well water or the aquifers on which your farm or industrial operation sit. At the end of the day, it’s about you and your survival. Leadership here is about performing for yourself or your company, full stop. Up until the late twentieth century, this was the dominant form of environmental leadership on the individual and global level.
Stage 2. Looking around “Neighborhood”
After looking in the garden, this is about asking how I compare with others. Is my competitor doing the same thing I am? Do I care, and should I use up as much of the resource as I can while it lasts? It’s also about asking whether there is an advantage in being better than my neighbor or competitor? Would other stakeholders like my investors or local regulator treat me more favorably if I acted better than the average bloke in my neighborhood or marketplace? Leadership here is all about relative performance, and whether there are perceived benefits in being “better than” a peer or competitor. This model has dominated the environmental leadership paradigm until very recently, and is exemplified by the many sustainability indexes or rankings of corporate actors compared to each other.
Stage 3. Looking at the Planet
After looking around the neighborhood or marketplace, this is about asking whether performing better than my neighbors is actually going to help me in the end? Is my fishery viable even if all the fisherman in the village take an equal number of fish? Given the rate of climate change, is my oil company really viable, even though we are diversifying more than my competitors into renewable energy sources? It’s about understanding the externalities outside of my neighborhood or marketplace which might change the rules of the game and turn A+ actors into failures because nobody was actually performing within the parameters or tolerances of the environment or planet. Leadership here is all about holistic performance, and whether the whole, or planet, is degraded despite or because of the actions of the parts. This model is beginning to take hold as a more viable way to measure environmental leadership at a time when we have the clear capacity to disrupt the entire global ecosystem. The COP21 result recently in Paris is a good example of this type of leadership, with the parts assuming responsibility for the whole.