Since Davos, I’ve been thinking about cultural sustainability. This isn’t a term that I heard there, but one that I wish that I had.
These days, when people in business talk about sustainability, they mean environmental sustainability. Traditionally, the environment was an externality that was ignored. More and more, with the conversations of “carbon neutral,” people are starting to think about what it means to environmentally sustainable. At the same time, a company can be environmentally sound and completely destroy local economies and other aspects of culture through their moves.
To me, the idea of “cultural sustainability” is about companies whose actions offset the consequences of their presence (or disappearance). For example, when large companies abandon cities that they’ve been in for years and where the entire city revolves around them, their move has a HUGE culturally destructive force. How do they offset this in a functional way? How does this get considered to be an externality that needs to be factored in? (It used to be through layoff benefits and pensions that kept going no matter what… this is no longer viewed as critical.) Large companies who come into a town and put out of business a variety of different local merchants have another kind of culturally destructive practices. This is why the conversations around Wal-Mart get so heated: capitalism vs. cultural sustainability.
When companies were smaller and local, there were pressures put upon them to be good local citizens. They invested in the towns where they were present and operated as key actors in creating culturally sustainable systems. It was normal for a company to help out with a local school event because education made sense for the company because it meant better employees. As companies get bigger and bigger (and “globalized”), there’s less pressure to be invested in the culture. Even if there was, what culture should they invest in when they’re so big? Mostly, big companies give back to communities for PR purposes.
There are numerous points of pressure placed on companies right now to be environmentally sustainable, but this is not the only kind of sustainability that matters. That said, there are lessons to be learned. For a long time, the conversation tended to devolve into capitalism vs. environmental sustainability. More and more, folks are saying BOTH and finding ways to make that work. How do we do this with cultural sustainability? What pressure points need to be put into place where culture is evaluated as an externality in the models that economists draw up?