The discovery of sustainability

Guest contribution by | 26.09.2019

At the beginning of August I read a tweet by Franziska Köppe about the question “What do you know about Fridays For Future?” at an entrepreneur breakfast that Franziska presented to a representative with a focus on sustainability. His answer: “Those are the kids with the demos.” Franziska’s tweet sounded almost desperate: ” …if not even the own filter bubble recognises the urgency.”

Without wanting to hurt the one who made the statement, but his answer is revealing. It stands for something that we encounter every day in our working environment – whether it’s about sustainability or not: Disdain or ignorance, because someone has no desire or time or the competence to inform themselves beyond their own nose. Or if one is mistaken that one’s own current knowledge, one’s own competences, are good and sufficient.

Toxic work culture

If a 16-year-old girl clearly and unambiguously expresses what goes wrong worldwide in the areas of economics and ecology and is therefore hosted in various media by people who have either never dealt with these issues before or have done so for a very long time, then one should pay attention. Then it’s not about the thing, but about the loss of power. People feel attacked and caught and react with disdain to distract from their own ignorance or even failure. Applied to the daily working environment, such behaviour not only poisons the working culture, but is also a clear indication of a working culture in which most transformation efforts fail.

But there is good news: more and more people and organisations are realising that something has to change and that they also want to change something. Better cooperation, a different form of leadership, real values. They discover sustainability.

Interactions in transformation

No one will deny that transformation is one of the buzzwords of the Zeitgeist, even if it must be clear to us that transformation does not happen suddenly, but is an immanent part of every existence. The economic causalities of supply and demand markets are currently only having a limited effect, i.e. the risk of no longer being successful with one’s own business model tomorrow is increasing. At the same time, framework conditions are being created at the political level that will provide for operational regulations in the future. This makes cross-sectoral observations and their interactions

  • Economy – Ecology
  • Ecology – Social/Society
  • Social/Society – Economy

all the more important and, on the other hand, an individual mix of flexible and stable internal structures in order to be able to adapt more quickly. Accordingly, management in companies has long been put to the test and is changing, i.e. it becomes moderate, situational and transformational depending on the requirements context. This also changes working relationships – both internally and externally.

At the internal level (internal stakeholders), the following management characteristics promote relationships within the company:

  • Leadership through questions (clarifying terms/questioning, giving space to silence)
  • Balance between leading and following (“learning teachers”)
  • Balance of values (see Competing Values Model)
  • Balance in change (not only focusing on the new/future, but integrating the old/past)
  • Culture of contradictions / Culture of the “as well as”

At the external level (external stakeholders) it is worthwhile to also acquire the above-mentioned characteristics for customer and supplier relationships. Not only because the relationships become more loss-free and less wasteful, but also because it makes more economic sense. For the lifecycle of a company, it is now time to say goodbye to linear growth thinking “higher, faster, further” and to think in networks and cycles. The pressure on companies and thus also the pressure on managers to devote themselves to the topic of sustainability and climate justice is growing – from both the social (see #FridaysForFuture) and the political side. Climate change explicitly has economic effects on companies.

Sustainability = economy, ecology and social affairs

Sustainability involves a high degree of complexity, and translating the word “sustainable” into “permanent” is far too short. There are various concepts on the subject of sustainability and corporate responsibility with which companies can implement their sustainability strategies – all based fundamentally on sustainability models that encompass the areas of economy, ecology and social affairs.

The area of ecology is traditionally the most strongly defined in this model, i.e. the indicators in this sector can be implemented by companies with the help of certifiable environmental and energy management systems. The social sector is basically covered by compliance guidelines and occupational health and safety laws, but many companies also integrate health prevention programmes and further training courses here. In addition, companies are usually involved in social and/or regional projects/initiatives. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provides a very detailed reporting framework for documenting sustainability activities; many sustainability reports are drawn up according to the GRI standard. Various initiatives, such as the “German Sustainability Code”, simplify reporting, especially for SMEs for whom the GRI framework causes a considerable amount of work.

Concepts for the implementation of sustainability

There are a number of concepts for the concrete implementation of sustainability in companies. Here you will find some without claim to completeness and without ranking:

Corporate Social Responsibility

The best-known and oldest concept for implementation is still Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – the classic, originally based on the triple bottom line model, the integrative model has been preferred for several years. Sometimes “only” Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Corporate Governance (CG) are mentioned, recently the term Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) has been added. A very young term is Corporate Political Responsibility (CPR), which, however, has similarities with the already existing Corporate Citizenship (CC).

Public welfare economy

A much more comprehensive concept for the implementation of sustainable corporate development is the concept of the common-good economy with the common-good matrix, which comprises 5 values that promote the common good (human dignity, solidarity, ecological sustainability, social justice, democratic co-determination & transparency). The matrix represents the understanding of an economic system that promotes the common good; participating companies draw up a balance sheet for the common good.

B-Corp (B-Corporation)

B-Corp is an association of various international companies and organisations with their own assessment model and certification of sustainability. B-Corp companies undergo the B-Corp assessment in 3 stages and 4 impact areas: Governance, Workers, Community, Environment.

Lean production / lean management / lean leadership

Surprise! Yes, Lean can also be understood as a concept to promote sustainability. In a nutshell: Lean production focuses on efficiency and thus the avoidance of wasting resources. Lean management and lean leadership live – ideally – the Kaizen culture, leadership takes place through questions and situational-transformative against the background of permanent improvement.

Connecting ecosystems

In all previous concepts, the area of economics is mainly occupied with the indicators governance, transparency and/or compliance in very general terms. Concrete indicators such as organisational models and structures that promote sustainable management are lacking. We have therefore developed our own model of sustainable corporate culture based on the integrative sustainability model. Our further development consists of concretising the economy sector and supplementing the social sectors with new work and ecology with the topic of circular economy.

Orientation models with different approaches

Purpose company

“Purpose” focuses – understood in an international context – also on a sustainable orientation of companies – instead of shareholder value, stakeholder value should come to the fore. Internationally, the term is vaguely defined and not backed by a concept. In Germany, however, there is the Purpose Foundation, which has an explicit concept: participating companies are contractually obliged to reinvest profits in the company and not to sell the company to investors.

Social entrepreneurship

The growing group of “Social Entrepreneurs” is not a concept, but rather its own economic direction – companies that want to solve social and/or ecological problems with their business models.

Circular economy

With the Circular Economy, the focus is on the material. Circular Economy companies design products in such a way that they can either be recycled loss-free in a technical cycle or degraded in a biological cycle. Actors and drivers in this field include the Ellen-McArthur-Foundation and the Cradle-To-Cradle movement around Michael Braungart.

Doughnut economics

The British economist Kate Raworth has created an economic alternative with the metaphor of the donut, which she describes in her book “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist” (2017). Imagine the doughnut, the outer ring describes the limitation of the economy by the ecological borders of the planet, the inner ring the social foundation. According to Raworth, the task of the economy is to steer within the borders.

The big leverage for companies

It is important to know that neither model nor concept is better than the other. However, it makes sense for any company to become aware of the interactions between the three sectors of economy, ecology and social affairs. The choice of concept depends on the individual’s starting position and resources. Success also depends on management decisions – the better employees are involved, the more successful they are. After all, it should be clear that sustainability measures that are detrimental to the workload of employees have nothing to do with sustainability.

Irrespective of concepts and models, there are two major adjustment levers for companies that can be turned around, especially in view of increasing digitization:

  • Energy and
  • mobility.

The switch to green electricity is the first concrete step that can usually be taken at short notice. When it comes to mobility, logistics, business trips and company cars are under scrutiny: What and how much can be replaced by alternative concepts?

So, what are we waiting for? Enjoy the implementation!

By the way: “the children with the demos” organise themselves almost perfectly in self-organisation with quick decision-making methods, appreciative communication and the joy of experimenting. You may, can and should learn from them.



You can read more from Daniela Roecker in her German Blog at It is worth it.

Some German links:

Global Reporting Initiative:
Deutscher Nachhaltigkeitskode:
Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland:

Some international Links:

Circular Economy:

Daniela Roecker has published more posts in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: The company as an ecosystem

The company as an ecosystem

t2informatik Blog: Sustainability and open source

Sustainability and open source

t2informatik Blog: Corporate sustainabilty

Corporate sustainabilty

Daniela Röcker
Daniela Röcker

Daniela Röcker accompanies companies in the context of digitalisation and sustainability as an organisational developer and consultant with the Kultur-Komplizen. Her goal is to create circumstances that enable employees, leaders and teams to implement changes on their own. One of the tools she uses is "culture profiling", which she developed herself in 2019 and which is being iteratively developed further together with practice partners. The Kultur-Komplizen are involved in the core team of #EntrepreneursForFuture Region Stuttgart.