Earlier this year, I attended a conference in France that focused on environmental and social sustainability in business. Throughout the day, top academic researchers hailing from several prestigious European institutions presented their projects and tried to convince the audience of their importance and cutting-edge relevance.
After each presentation, there was a 15 minute Q&A session during which the questions were typically twice as long as the answers. In some instances, it was hard to tell which was which, and after a couple of the presentations, 15 minutes was only enough time for one question.
Despite the lack of brevity, every single presentation, and the subsequent questions, were focused exclusively on practical techniques for businesses to adopt environmentally sustainable practices, and no mention was made regarding the issue of a business's willingness to do so.
At the very end of the conference, all the presenters formed a discussion panel, and I asked one very simple question:
“How do we address business leaders that don’t believe in or care about climate change or sustainability?”
There was a deafening silence throughout the hall as I watched the dumbstruck faces of the panel members change from confusion to shock, and then finally disgust.
After several more moments of awkward silence, I wondered if perhaps my question had been too short, so I came up with some more words to try and better explain my meaning. I described to the audience the people in America who don’t actually believe that climate change exists, or that it is caused by humans. The audience seemed unfamiliar with the concept, however, once I said the actual words climate denier, things seemed to ease a bit, and the room began to comprehend the meaning of my question.
However, the response from everyone on the panel was alarming as most were quick to dismiss climate deniers as a small inconsequential minority, and therefore irrelevant. The truth is that climate deniers are in powerful positions throughout the federal government and corporate America, and perhaps most importantly, comprise a very large segment of the consumer base in America.
I left the conference on sustainability with a frightening realization of the disconnect that exists between academic scholars and large segments of the population, at least as it pertains to climate change and environmental sustainability. Having lived in several U.S. states, I myself have seen just how many people in America outright dismiss the notion of climate change as nothing more than political hyperbole.
Despite the reality that not everyone actually believes in reality, the European academic management community is primarily focused on identifying new sustainable business models, rather than generating convincing reasons for adopting them. This is unfortunate since the European Union is currently the leader of climate change initiatives for the entire planet, and so convincing reasons are unlikely to come from anywhere else.
While it is wonderful to create new business models that allow for sustainability, more needs to be done to convince Americans, and others, that there are few issues more important than protecting the ecosystem that gives us life. Without popular support, initiatives aimed at sustainability will fail.