The Green to Gold Business Playbook: half the story?

This year, I resolved to read one sustainability-related book per month. March’s book is The Green to Gold Business Playbook by Daniel C. Esty, and P.J. Simmons, published in 2011. 

I’m a strategist and communicator by trade, so for this month’s book I thought I’d try something outside my area of expertise: the scarily technical world of environmental management.

The Green to Gold Business Playbook is a practical guide to environmental strategy and management – not just to help companies ‘go green’, but to provide a “structured and analytically rigorous way of applying an environment or sustainability lens to your business strategy”.

My first impression was one of disappointment. Although the book covers a wide range of sustainability issues, social issues are presented as ‘optional’ throughout. What do I expect, you might ask, of a book with ‘green’ in its title? It’s a fair point… but, actually, in a context where ethics, labour rights, tax and other non-environmental issues are key to success, it’s rather misleading to present them as optional considerations for any business.

Putting that aside – and it feels strange to do so, because I think it’s a significant weakness in a sustainability guide – the book is a clear and comprehensive guide to environmental management. It covers the business case for applying an environmental lens to strategy (my favourite tip from this section: make sure your business case covers the costs of inaction on environmental issues) as well as details of ‘greening’ every aspect of a business, from IT to innovation.

There are also some great insights to be gleaned from case studies and interviews with leaders. I especially enjoyed Chief Sustainability Officer Kathrin Winker’s comments on restraint: “… there have been times I’ve tried to draw the big picture for others and gotten the response, ‘Kathrin, you overwhelm me.’ I’ve learned to look for ‘wedge issues’ where addressing the sliver of an issue provides an opening for broader thinking and action over time.”

But there’s one more disappointment to come. Despite its recent publication date, The Green to Gold Business Playbook feels dated. Its focus on managing environmental impacts means it doesn’t have space to deal with the macro-level changes that we now know are necessary to ‘green’ the world of business.

For example, the chapter on green marketing is all about finding niche ‘green’ markets and developing ‘green’ products, instead of making more sustainable products and services attractive to mainstream customers.

And, given the huge role that consumers will need to play in reducing environmental impacts (Unilever, for example, estimates that nearly 70% of the company’s environmental footprint takes place when consumers use their products), shouldn’t there be more than half a page on consumer behaviour change?

So, to sum up: if you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to the basics of environmental management, I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly. But there are too many gaps – social issues, moving sustainability to the mainstream, truly engaging consumers – for it to be the last word on creating competitive advantage through sustainability.

Image: Gold by Luc De Leeuw is licensed under CC BY 2.0