Sustainability: Are We Asking the Right Questions?




Our employees take the morning off to go somewhere where they can plant some trees. We take a picture of them smiling to post to our social media. We proclaim that we are sustainable because we have offset the carbon footprint of our executives' air travel for the year. Is this sustainability? Sure, it's a net positive sustainable activity for companies to undertake. But is this really what sustainability is about?


We talk a big game about not supporting businesses that use wildlife in tourism and talk about how we are acting sustainably by doing so. We tweet about how we are saving the world's wildlife and are taking a strong stance. Is this sustainability? Maybe. Were you there over the past 18 months when that wildlife you said you were protecting needed your support? Did you ask your local partners how you or your company could help?


After more than 18 months of the pandemic, I think most have demonstrated a complete failure to live up to the words they've used about their commitment to sustainability.


Over the past 18 months, no overseas partner has asked me whether we compensated the employees we were forced to lay off. We did, but others either closed their business and disappeared or bullied employees into accepting less severance pay than what they should have received. And those companies will face no accountability because no one is asking them the right question: When the moment finally came, did you act sustainably towards your employees.


Over the last 18 months, no overseas partner has asked me whether we fully paid all of our suppliers for the services they rendered on our behalf. We did pay them in full and on time, but others closed shop and left the country with debts to their local partners unpaid at the worst possible time. Today they post on LinkedIn about how excited they are for the world to reopen and to restart their businesses. And those companies will face no accountability from overseas partners because no one is asking them the right question: When the moment finally came, did you act sustainably towards your suppliers.


Think back to how you acted in a moment of crisis. When the moment came and customers cancelled their tours, did you follow your contractual obligations? Did you pay on time? Or did you delay payment? Did you pay the amount you were obliged to pay or did tell your local partners that they needed to "make an extra effort" and reduce the amount owed?


For those who are given much and live in countries where there are strong labor protections, the ability to raise capital at low cost, and to receive financial support from the government to keep your businesses afloat, much more is likely required if you dare to say you are "sustainable." That's not to say there weren't bright spots: some overseas partners offered to let us keep deposits we should have returned. Some overseas partners have shared the deposits they've received from customers with us because they recognize we're both working now and so we both should be paid.

So start asking the questions that matter. As the world reopens, if you want to talk about sustainability, make sure your own house is in order and, if it isn't, see how you can make amends and help us all work together sustainably.

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