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An Interview with Jonathan T. Scott — Sustainable Business Champion

Jonathan T. Scott’s latest book, New Standards for Long-Term Business Survival, has just been published by Sustainable Business Performance. As with his previous two books on sustainability, this book is very easy-to-read and is available as a free, 30-page, PDF document that explains what sustainability is, why it is important, and how sustainable practices are being successfully implemented in businesses around the world.

I had a chance to interview Jonathan prior to the book release, and discuss his many years of influential work in promoting sustainable business practices.

How long have you been researching and teaching sustainability?

Since 2004.

What inspired you to start and what is motivating you to keep going?

In 2004, I was looking ahead for a way to conclude a book that I was planning to write on entrepreneurship. In particular, I was hoping to discover a common problem that businesses would face in the future and to end the book by mentioning it. Resource depletion, pollution and economic disparity seemed like good areas to investigate. I was surprised and intrigued to learn that they’re related so I dove deeper into them.

After I had done a bit of research, it became clear that sustainability was the way of the future so I started mentioning it in my lectures in order to gauge the reaction of students. They were very interested in the subject so I pressed on with it and began to include more and more information about it in my lectures. Today, most of them believe that sustainability is the calling of their generation.

What obstacles have you encountered during your journey?

The first obstacle I faced was in the form of colleagues and university administrators. Just about everyone I knew in academia thought I was crazy or wrong – or both – in my attempts to introduce sustainability as a business school subject and for several years I had a real fight on my hands.

In 2005, when I first suggested adding sustainability as a business course, the president of the university where I worked made a throwing gesture with his left hand and invited me to exit his office by loudly growling, ‘GET OUT OF HERE!’ Five years later, he presented me with an award for outstanding achievements in teaching. In particular, he refused to ignore the over $2 million my students showed local businesses they can save by adopting waste-minimization practices, which is a first step towards sustainability. Today, he is one of my biggest supporters. The progress I made with other administrators involved luck more than anything else. For example, one program coordinator resisted every attempt made to introduce sustainability into the curriculum; then she took a two-year maternity leave. Thankfully, three minutes was all that was needed to convince her replacement that sustainability is not only a viable business subject, but that it’s crucial to business survival. The first semester it was offered, the course, which was titled Managing the New Frontiers, became the most popular elective in the school’s history – a record it still holds.

Mostly, though, I was ‘the invisible man’ during the period in which I was trying to get sustainability accepted as a mainstream business school subject. Invitations to meetings disappeared and I was pretty much ignored by staff. But on the bright side, this gave me more time to do more research into sustainability and figure out how to teach it.

Nowadays, the most difficult overall obstacle is trying to convince business-oriented people that sustainability is about long-term thinking and long-term profitability and that environmentalism is just once aspect of that. Once you get past that, you’re well on your way to captivating a business audience.

How do you communicate the message of sustainability?

I use a business application approach. As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to convey a message to others is in a way that they understand – and with business people that means finance, cost-savings and profits. When that’s tied to the application of sustainability it creates an enormously effective message. Time and again I’ve seen it reduce a class of seasoned executives to a stunned hush.

Conversely, trying to get businesses or business students interested in sustainability by first talking about the environment, carbon emissions, or corporate social sustainability makes it much more difficult to teach. Believe me, I tried. It took about two years before I learned that the cost savings and profitability inherent in sustainable practices was the best starting point. Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s how businesses that implement sustainability also start. That in itself says a lot.

Afterwards, it becomes much easier to introduce environmental and CSR issues into the mix. In fact, I’ve found out that business students actively want to learn more about them after finance and profitability issues have been addressed.

Who else is helping you with this, or are you doing it alone?

At the university where I work, I am alone – with the exception of the many students who help me. Without the students, I probably would have either abandoned this quest a long time ago or I’d be far behind where I am now. In the past year, however, the university has granted me a lot of leeway in expanding my program and center (the Center for Industrial Productivity and Sustainability) so things are picking up. The bottom line is that more and more students are demanding to know about sustainability, which makes it difficult for business school administrators to ignore.

Outside of university, Walter Stahel is the first person I usually turn to when I have questions or need something proof-read. When I first started with all of this, he was the only one who answered his phone. After that, he told me to mention his name if I wanted to speak with other people in the field and it worked. Walter and I have now been working together for 5 or 6 years. He was the one who I first approached when I came up with the crazy idea of putting my first book on sustainability on the internet as a free download because the publishers that were interested in it insisted that it had to be marketed as an environmental book rather than a business book. It turned out to be a very good decision. Providing free educational materials has helped both of us spread the sustainability message further and faster than we ever did before – and the European Foundation of Management Development has been instrumental in helping to disseminate our materials.

Who do you think deserves attention nowadays concerning sustainability?

Obviously I’m biased, but Walter Stahel is generally considered to be the man who proved the viability of modern industrial sustainability with closed-loop economics back in the late 1970’s. Nowadays, however, he receives almost no recognition for what he did. This needs to be rectified. His work is constantly used, copied, and misinterpreted by so many people, and almost always without attribution.

Who do you think is attracting unwarranted attention? Why?

Almost everyone who is involved in sustainability is contributing in some way and deserves recognition for it. That being said, too many people are now entering the field and reinventing the wheel without giving credit to the pioneers who came before them. This is shameful, to say the least.

A few months ago I was speaking with a director at one of the world’s top academic accreditation institutes and he said that for decades most business school academics had successfully ignored sustainability and had actively fought against it as a viable business topic, but now, in just six short months, they’re all claiming to be experts. I had to laugh at the truth behind that. Many people are now jumping onto the bandwagon and the mistake a lot of them are making – which is the same mistake I made when I began – is to focus on the symptoms of unsustainable business activity – pollution and carbon emissions, and so on – instead of the causes, which begin with waste and inefficiency in products and production processes. Reputable studies show that up to 95% of the resources used in businesses can be completely wasted. That’s where the crux of the problem lies and that’s the main cause of much of the world’s pollution and environmental problems.

I find that many billion-dollar corporations are unsustainable and are throwing up the biggest roadblocks to sustainable practices. How do we convince these corporations that they need to implement sustainability? How do we convince them to clean up their mess, or better still, not make a mess? How do we convince them that they will probably lose billions of dollars in profits if they continue to think in the short-term?

Education is the key. In my research, which is explained in the books Managing the New Frontiers and The Sustainable Business, I identify the many reasons why people ignore the long-term profit potential of sustainability. ‘Lack of awareness’ is at the top of the list followed by ‘this is going to cost too much’ and ‘waste acceptance’.

Big coal, oil, chemical companies, and agriculture giants, seem to be holding on to their old ways of making profits. However, I do feel that change is taking place and that we are in a transition period. Why does change occur so slowly?

Apart from lack of education, ‘stranded capital’ plays a big role. Many businesses have invested billions of dollars in outdated, waste-producing systems and don’t want to replace anything until it fully depreciates. As for big coal, oil and gas, some businesses and industries simply seem to have to learn things the hard way. Obviously, we’re still going to need oil, coal and gas in the future, but the way we use them is going to change and the big boys need to focus on that. Diversifying into renewables isn’t a bad idea either.

Will things change?

Yes, I think they will have to simply because sustainability is so profitable. The development of the light bulb provides a good example of why I think this is so. When the light bulb was perfected in the late 1870’s no electrical power plants existed, no transmission lines criss-crossed towns and countries, no houses or businesses were wired for electricity, and no lamps were being manufactured. Nevertheless, the financial – and other – benefits of the light bulb outweighed the cost of the infrastructure needed to support it so the necessary capital and investment was eventually – and willingly – put forward. For this reason, I think that government-mandated standards, combined with financial support and the nurturing of a network of cooperating businesses will play a crucial role in creating and promoting a more profitable and less costly closed-loop economy. It just makes sense.

Keep up the important work, Jonathan.

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