Getting Past Know

How outside the jar thinking can drive sustainability action.

“Being a good corporate citizen has never been so challenging.” So began a special Economist report from 2008. Fast forward two years, and we still see challenges aplenty.


True, there have been great strides in some areas. Wal-Mart’s stump speech about equating sustainability with efficiency seems to be winning converts –  companies are turning over every stone for a bottom line boost. More profitable company ‘greening’ case studies are being written, lowering the fear of the unknown for newbies. And more corporations are adopting sustainability throughout their organization, demonstrating that it works as more than a ‘bolt on’.

Still, there are gargantuan hurdles to overcome – some new and some nagging. Lack of government leadership (embodied by Copenhagen), and the politicization of sustainability by climate deniers, are just two examples.

But why do some companies hop over these hurdles to the greener, more profitable pastures beyond, while others remain stymied – stuck in the mud of inaction?

Could there be, behind the rational reasons for inaction, a psychological barrier that is holding CEO’s back?




In 1953, Robert Heinlein wrote “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.”

Robert Gifford, Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at University of Victoria, reflected Heinlein’s statement in a study on human sustainability inaction. In it, he outlined ‘Thirteen Dragons’ that lead us to do nothing, even if we innately understand action is required. They are:

1. Environmental numbness, or ‘tuning out’,

2. Doubt of scientific certainty,

3. Lack of perceived personal control of the situation,

4. Denial,


5. Conflicting goals and aspirations,

6. Equity, or waiting for others to do their fair share first,

7. Reactance, or the hostile reaction to feeling pressured,

8. Lack of identification with one’s community,

9. Tokenism, or stopping at one token action,

10. Habit,


11. Perceived risks,

12. Divine determinism, or belief this is beyond our control,

13. An excessive bias to optimism.

I recognize several of these very human ‘action blockers’ in myself. I’m certain they impact the decision-making powers of executives charged with adopting corporate sustainability.

The action blockers leave us stuck at ‘know’, and don’t let us progress to ‘do’. So how do we beat them?




Corporate innovation begins with an outside the jar perspective.

At last week’s Fortune Green conference, Wal-Mart’s Lee Scott offered up a great outside the jar perspective on green innovation. It was a point of view that would help many an executive kick into action.

He said every executive should consider the amount of money they were leaving on the table by sticking with status quo production, operations and logistics.

No mention of sustainability. No mention of climate. Just money on the table.

He then said this thought was core to Wal-Mart’s commitment to constantly pushing the green envelope. Always keep looking for money left on the table.


At the same conference, Alan Salzman of VantagePoint Venture Partners offered another refreshing outside the jar perspective, saying we were basically dealing with an antiquated means of production that needed updating.

Again, no mention of green. Just the observation that we’ve been resting on our laurels, and old equipment, too long.

Between the two, Scott and Salzman managed to bring sustainability back into a frame of reference CEO’s could work with.

That’s the power of a simple shift in perspective.


Marc Stoiber is VP Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, an innovation agency based in Chicago. Stoiber and his green team work from Vancouver.


About the author

Marc Stoiber is a creative director, entrepreneur, green brand specialist and writer. He works with clients to build resilient, futureproof brands. Marc's leadership positions have included VP of Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, President and Founder of Change Advertising, National Creative Director of Grey Canada and Creative Director of DDB Toronto