Understanding the importance of values to the sustainability agenda

by Ed Mayo

Following the Oxford English Dictionary, values are what matter to us, what motivate us. As such, values have the power to encourage voluntary action and effort that goes beyond the narrow limits of individual self-interest.

We have no shortage of tools for sustainability. We can grapple it into place, perhaps aiming for net positive, with triple bottom line accounts in place and the business case set. But is it possible that we can go further, by going deeper? By looking at the culture and values that can generate and regenerate positive action on sustainability over time.

Of course, values can be hard to get a grip on and all too often in a business setting, values are no more than a poster on the wall. That is why I have been working on a practical guide on how to bring values to life in business – how to recruit for values, how to build values into the supply chain, how boards can use values and how to measure values.

Some of this draws on insights from social psychology, that have started to be used far more widely now in relation to behaviour change, in both public health and environmental programmes.

Tom Crompton has worked on environmental causes for many years, and now runs an initiative, Common Cause, designed to reboot the way that business and NGOs approach values. I explain his work and approach in the book, Values.

Tom draws a distinction between ‘intrinsic’ values, which are inner-directed and more personal, and ‘extrinsic’ values such as outer-directed concerns about wealth, social status or image. Intrinsic values do tend to favour co-operation, with motives such as fairness and sustainability, while extrinsic values are more influenced by competition, such as financial gain or personal advantage.

ed-mayo-headsThere are good reasons, he says, why it is important to understand which of these sets of values are being prompted. First, if you talk to people in the language of extrinsic values, with marketing such as ‘pay less’, ‘get ahead’ or ‘be cool’, you tend to anaesthetise their intrinsic values. He points to a slew of studies, for example, in which ‘participants who are temporarily more aware of money, image or status show lower levels of social and environmental concern’.

Second, if you engage people by prompting one of their intrinsic values, such as fairness, they are more likely to respond in relation to other similar values as well. ‘There is good empirical evidence that these “bleed over” between one another,’ explains Tom. ‘Engage one and you are likely to strengthen others. This is why we find that we can talk to people about “supporting self-direction among people with disabilities”, and see an upturn in environmental concern.’

What this means is that it doesn’t matter too much which of the intrinsic values you are working on. In pursuing one you are likely to be strengthening them all.

Examples of intrinsic values are ‘helpfulness’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘dignity’, ‘fairness’, ‘honesty’ and ‘responsibility’. Examples of extrinsic values are ‘wealth’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social status’, ‘prestige’, ‘power’, ‘influence’ and ‘authority’.

Values add up to a different way of understanding organisations, with the potential to get underneath the surface and talk to what people most care about, in work or outside. That doesn’t, however, mean a return to daily complexity. We need everyday tools to bring values to life, as much as we do tool for inventory or double entry book keeping. For any organisation that considers itself to be value-based, the emerging toolkit on values in business, from recruitment to governance, and supply chain to compliance, is there to help.

Values are an essential component of the sustainability agenda. So much of the modern agenda on sustainable business is couched is language and framing that is common to business life – focusing on managerial process, for the ‘how’, or economic and commercial advantage, for the ‘why’. Values, particularly ethical values, are different in that they are the only way in which people can move beyond their self interest or group identifications to start to respond to more open calls on how to behave and act.

Above all, sustainability is about the redefinition of traditional rights and responsibilities in a new ecologically-constrained context. This is an exploration that can only progress if there is dialogue around the values that are assumed to underpin how we, and the organisations and communities we inhabit, should act.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General at Co-operatives UK and author of a new book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business.

 Values is published by Greenleaf and available on http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/online-collections/values

 The illustration is by Frankie Mayo

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