The Invisible Challenge: Psychological Barriers to Sustainability in Business

In today’s business landscape, the quest for environmental sustainability often finds itself at odds with traditional business models and practices. The psychological barriers that prevent individuals from understanding and embracing sustainability are magnified in the corporate world, creating a significant yet less obvious challenge.

Reconciling Profit and Planet

The primary struggle for businesses lies in reconciling their profit-driven objectives with the necessity for sustainable practices. On a bright, sunny spring day, it’s hard to imagine how a company’s daily operations might be contributing to rising CO2 levels and the more significant climate crisis. This disconnect is deeply rooted in the corporate worldview, which has historically prioritized immediate financial gains over long-term environmental health.

Businesses, much like individuals, tend to respond more urgently to visible, immediate threats. Invisible dangers, such as increasing CO2 emissions, do not register as pressing concerns on a corporate balance sheet. It’s the classic case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Yet, this psychological barrier significantly hampers businesses’ ability to recognize their integral role in the global environmental crisis.

A Tale of Two Realities

This contrast in the corporate approach to sustainability becomes even more pronounced when considering businesses operating in heavily polluted areas compared to those in less visibly affected regions. For companies in polluted locales, the repercussions of environmental neglect are immediate and tangible. They confront the reality of environmental degradation daily, impacting their operations, workforce, and bottom line. In these settings, the link between corporate actions and environmental impacts is glaringly apparent, rendering the adoption of sustainable practices not just a moral obligation but also a strategic necessity for business survival and social responsibility.

The situation is markedly different for businesses in regions where pollution isn’t as conspicuous. See the image above… The connection between their day-to-day operations and the broader environmental crisis can seem distant or even irrelevant. The absence of immediate, tangible environmental cues creates a psychological gap, complicating the integration of sustainable practices into the corporate ethos. This lack of visible urgency often leads to sustainability taking a backseat in strategic planning and operations.

The Role of Political Pressure

In such scenarios, political pressure can act as a significant choke point, particularly if sustainability is not a key element of the local or national agenda. Companies might find little external motivation to adopt sustainable practices in regions where environmental policies are not stringent or deprioritized. Political climates that favor short-term economic gains over long-term environmental health can further entrench the mindset of ‘profit over planet.’ This creates an additional layer of complexity, as businesses operating under such political environments may face challenges in justifying investments in sustainability, both internally and to their stakeholders.

C\ompanies in regions with strong environmental policies and political backing for sustainability initiatives often find it easier to align their business strategies with ecological objectives. The political environment in these areas can provide both a framework and an impetus for integrating sustainable practices, making it a part of the business’s competitive edge rather than a perceived burden.

The tale of these two realities underscores the need for a holistic approach to sustainability in business. It highlights the importance of not only internal corporate commitment but also the role of external forces, including political pressures and policies, in shaping a company’s sustainability journey. Recognizing and navigating these complexities is crucial for businesses to effectively bridge the gap between their operations and the urgent need for environmental stewardship.

Making the Invisible Visible

To address this disconnect, businesses must adopt strategies that go beyond simply adhering to environmental regulations. They must strive to make the invisible visible within their corporate culture. This requires a two-pronged approach: internal education and external communication. Internally, businesses need to foster a culture of sustainability through training programs and initiatives that make the abstract concept of CO2 emissions tangible. Externally, they must transparently communicate their environmental impact and sustainability efforts to stakeholders.

Identifying Impact Areas

Following the efforts to educate and communicate about environmental impacts, businesses must then take a hard look at their own operations and identify where their largest impacts are. This could be in areas like energy use, waste generation, supply chain management, product design, or project delivery.

Setting and Owning Sustainability Goals

Once these areas have been identified, businesses should set clear, measurable sustainability goals related to these impacts. These might include targets for reducing CO2 emissions, increasing energy efficiency, or minimizing waste. These goals should be ambitious yet achievable, pushing the business towards continual improvement without compromising operational viability.

But… setting these goals is just the first step. Businesses must also take ownership of these objectives, integrating them into their broader strategic planning and performance evaluation processes. This means going beyond mere compliance with  regulations and reporting frameworks and and proactively seeking out opportunities for sustainable value creation.Competence Standard Front Cover sm

Accountability and Upskilling

Ownership also implies accountability. Companies should regularly monitor and report on their progress towards these sustainability goals, being transparent with stakeholders about both their successes and their challenges. This not only fosters trust but also helps to maintain momentum and focus on the sustainability agenda.

A key part of owning sustainability goals is ensuring that the people responsible for implementing them have the right skills and knowledge to do so effectively. This means investing in upskilling staff to understand and apply best practices in sustainability.

Ensuring Your Staff have the Skills to Get the Job Done.

By upskilling staff and adopting robust performance metrics such as The GPM standard for sustainability leadership, businesses can not only ensure that they are making real progress towards their sustainability goals, but also demonstrate this progress to stakeholders in a transparent and credible way. This transparency and credibility are key to building trust and maintaining momentum on the sustainability agenda.



Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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