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Alice in Sustainabilityland – Part 1

March 9, 2010

Lewis Carroll published his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Carroll (the pseudonym for Charles Dodgson) come up with the characters during a rowboat trip up the Thames River with the three daughters of the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. As it turned out, those who were on the trip with him became characters woven throughout the story.

The film versions tend to combine the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel Through the Looking Glass.  The story has been adapted into musicals, silent film, Nippon Animation, and drawn by Disney and Hana-Barbara to name a few.

What can Alice teach us? Tim Burton’s latest film puts a new face on the classic tale. With classic Burton-esque dark images and spooky settings, Alice in Wonderland will surely be a box-office success. In watching this movie, I was struck by the many ways you could interpret the plot and cast of characters.

The fact of the matter is, in terms of corporate politics and making a lasting change, Alice represents what every sustainability professional wishes she could be: the accidental and brave heroine of business.

Think about it. As professionals, what motivates us? It’s the idea that we’re right, even if – truth be told -we’re not really sure we are. It’s the idea that good can trump evil. That the benevolent path of business can still be prosperous and that the take-no-prisoners  style of business is detrimental to more people than just shareholders.

RED VERSUS WHITE

And that’s what Alice in Wonderland portrays: an analogy of the business milieu at the extremes.  The Red Queen is the belligerent dictator – the “Old Guard” of business, if you will – who wins at all costs, ignores the impact of her decisions, and all that matters is her power. She’s ruthless. She’s quick to judge and will stop at nothing to protect her interests. She takes risks and ignores the consequences. It’s no surprise that she is drawn with a big head.

Sound familiar?

The White Queen is different.   She embodies the “enlightened self-interest “ we  hope, think, and wish business can be. She’s not giving enough to abdicate her crown – much like how businesses are always going to be profit-seeking – but she believes she can protect her power while still addressing the shared interest of her kingdom.

These two opposing sides that can be looked at through any number of lenses: communism vs. democracy, good vs. evil, fate vs. free will, love vs. hate.

Today we find ourselves in a similar dichotomy. “Evil” businesses have captured the lion’s share of headlines. “Good” businesses are keeping their heads low.  In the movie, between these two sides lay a cast of characters all interacting and conspiring to undermine and promote the two mindsets of business.

Now, does that sound familiar? It’s a business polity that is very much present today, only minus a whole lot of potions, drugs, and cake.

ALICE THE SUSTAINABILITY WARRIOR

Central to this list of characters if, of course, Alice-the-sustainability-professional-incarnate.  Caught between both sides, Alice is the reluctant warrior who is willing to fight for the little guy. Some view her as the savior of their troubles – as the answer to what is wrong.  However, shocked by everything around her and the familiarity of it all, she thinks she’s dreaming.

It reminded me of my experience seeing, repeatedly, the same issues faced by companies, employees, subcontractors, etc. over and over again. Like a record skipping, recapping the same lines of an old and tired song. The problems business face in sustainability aren’t new; at least not as the profession has gained traction over the past decade or two.  In working with companies, it’s never ceases to amaze me the common threads woven in all companies regardless of their industry: how to engage employees, how to engage stakeholders, the fear of upsetting “negative stakeholders.” It’s too familiar. It’s oddly comforting and eerie at the same time.

And then comes Alice. She eventually accepts her fate as the heroine once the little guy – the Mad Hatter -gets into trouble. She is willing to do battle against the Red Queen’s strongest warrior in order to save her friend and do what is right: restore the virtues of the White Queen to power.

It’s a lot like “us.” One of the reasons I got into the CSR/sustainability business is because I believe in standing for what is right and standing against those who try to destroy the Mad Hatters of the world.  Moreover, I believe that it’s possible to be the White Queen of business. You can have power and profit without compromising your values.

NEXT ARTICLE: ALICE’S GUIDE TO CORPORATE POLITICS

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The author is the president of Do Well Do Good – a CSR & philanthropy consulting firm based in Chicago. (c) 2010.

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