Note: This blog post was initially published in Organization & Environment in December, 2015, as part of an editorial written by Mark Starik, who was the journal’s Co-Editor-in-Chief at the time. The next blog post will provide the antidote to stealth sustainability.
When you or your organization do something sustainable, do you tell others about it? If not, you may be practicing “stealth sustainability”, which may be a problem. Stealth Sustainability is the implementation of sustainability projects and achievement of sustainability results that are not acknowledged publicly and, at times, are hidden from the general public, media, and/or other stakeholders to the detriment, rather than for the benefit, of advancing sustainability. Stealth sustainability can occur at any level of human activity, including the individual, organizational, community, and societal levels, and, given the nature of anything which is stealthy, is often difficult to detect and, therefore, to change from the outside.
But, given the generally positive feedback most sustainability entities would likely receive if their respective sustainability profiles were made visible, why would individuals, organizations, and others adopt and practice a stealth sustainability strategy? Possible reasons for this counter-intuitive approach are fear of being scrutinized, fear of eventual conceptual, product, or project problems including failure, and fear of raising expectations, both internally and externally, that even more or better sustainability projects will be developed on an ongoing basis in the future. Another reason, which has been the focus of one use of the term “brownwashing” (Kim & Lyon, 2014), is the fear that one or more stakeholders might not look favorably upon the idea or the results of sustainability management. So, fear may be a major generalized factor in why those who engage in sustainability management may be hesitant to make that information public. However, as understandable as that emotion is, several other human characteristics, including altruism, self-pride, leadership, and rationality may be summoned to balance out those fears.
Why would such a transformation of human motivation and behavior be beneficial? If, as it appears, both environmental and socio-economic sustainability need to be advanced to become central organizing principles of all human cultures, significant numbers of individuals, organizations, networks, and communities within those cultures apparently need to not only adopt and execute sustainability projects but also need to promote both their successes and their non-successes, so that we can learn from one another and use those lessons to improve and increase those sustainability projects so that they diffuse throughout, and eventually shape, our cultures in sustainability directions. No promotion, no learning, no advancement.
The problem of stealth sustainability probably exists throughout many cultures and organizations, including universities. In one university with which I was associated several years ago, that some organization administrators chose not to inform either the residents or visitors, or even other university officials that a residence hall that they were about to rename and rededicate was one of the first “green dorms” in the U.S. (in the 1990s). No signs, no brochure, no recognition.
We probably all have examples of similar sustainability recognition problems that we have observed in the organizations with which we are familiar. Speaking of green buildings, one common example of stealth sustainability in that sector is that of a well-known green building organization’s certification signs on a number of buildings in the U.S. After looking for certification signs or emblems on buildings that I had heard or read had achieved a certification from this organization, I have observed several that are hardly noticeable, especially those that are glazed/embossed on glass doors and windows. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”.