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Materiality and issue avoidance:
It's time to talk about elephants and first dates

With sustainability, elephants are the biggest challenges businesses need to address to deal with their impacts. So why are so many organisations ignoring them and what's the best approach?


Do you ever get the feeling an organisation is telling you what they think you want to hear without mentioning the issues that make them feel most uncomfortable?

Enter the “elephant in the room” - a metaphorical idiom used to describe an obvious problem that people don’t want to address or talk about.

In sustainability, these elephants are the biggest challenges businesses need to address to deal with their impacts. So why are so many organisations ignoring the elephant?

Perceptions are important

It might seem easier to avoid mentioning an uncomfortable issue, but this avoidance comes at a cost. It can make communications appear disingenuous and misleading; and that impacts how people perceive the organisation. Whether it’s your customers, investors or employees, incomplete communication does not build quality relationships centered around trust. That’s the thing about elephants. People know they’re in the room whether you talk about them or not.

The Warehouse Group’s aspiration to be New Zealand’s “most sustainable retailer” sounds good on paper but it’s hard to reconcile with a consumptive business model focused on selling low-cost goods in large quantities. That’s not to say The Warehouse aren’t taking steps to be more sustainable but as a recent article by Consumer NZ points out, the claim is difficult to assess and lacks transparency.

Does simply talking about an issue drive more impactful change?

Not in every case but we know it has positive outcomes in some areas. Talking more openly about mental health reduces the stigma associated with it which can encourage people to seek help before problems worsen. Recently NZME and the NZ Herald launched a major editorial project called Great Minds to examine the state of New Zealand’s mental health. The aim is not only to shed light on the state of the nation’s mental health but to share solutions for improving wellbeing as the country recovers from the pandemic. The initiative creates a safe space for talking about a difficult topic. 

Talking about elephants means summoning the courage to have these difficult conversations. It doesn’t mean that you have all the answers, but it should mean taking responsibility for the impacts that your business or product creates. Being honest and open builds respect, which is a great starting point for collaboration and action. Collaboration will be essential to solve the challenges we face as a society.

Take the example of PVC – one of the world’s most widely used polymers. PVC has properties that make it ideal for a range of everyday applications. However, it is also inherently harmful to the environment and human health due to the release of toxic chemicals in its production, use and disposal. Rather than hiding from these challenges and attributes, PVC industry leaders came together with The Natural Step to answer the question ‘Does PVC have a place in a sustainable society?’

The answer was ‘yes’ – but only if five major sustainability challenges can be overcome. These challenges set a roadmap towards a closed-loop, carbon neutral system which has framed sustainability-driven innovation for the industry ever since. Those 5 challenges have also been used to report progress with transparency, creating authentic accountability and trust. While the challenges for PVC are significant, talking about them has enabled the industry to proactively develop solutions for a sustainable future.

Is talking about the elephant in the room a risk?

Most businesses shy away from talking about controversial topics because of the apparent reputational risk. Yet finding a voice on an uncomfortable issue can be a powerful way to establish a leadership position. In 2012, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia ran a Black Friday advertisement in the New York Times. The advert addressed the issue of consumerism head-on by telling people ‘Don’t buy this jacket!’ It struck a chord because the message clearly addressed the elephant in the room. A business that relies on sales to exist, articulating an anti-growth message. It turns out profits increased 30% in 2012; a result that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard attributed to new customers rather than additional purchases from existing customers. Sometimes the elephant is an opportunity.

Another big elephant in the room is the incongruence of sustainability and annual reports.


The first shows solar panels and smiling communities, the second talks about growth. Unless a business is future-fit by being either net-zero or net-positive, that growth implicitly means an increase of the negative impacts. The dissonance elephant is hard to spot.

This brings us to company sustainability and ESG reports. A lot of reports fail to meet the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) principle of balance by predominantly sharing good news stories. This can make some reports feel more like glossy marketing brochures. It’s not always a case of avoiding the elephant though, sometimes a business hasn’t gone deep enough to understand what their biggest impacts are, so the elephant is hidden.

Property for Industry (PFI), for example – one of New Zealand’s largest industrial landlord was unaware of an elephant until the company calculated its carbon footprint. PFI learnt that corporate travel was not the big impact they thought it was. The until-then-invisible elephant turned out to be GHG emissions from leaking refrigerant gas in their HVAC systems. Once the elephant became visible to PFI, they swiftly moved to address it by phasing out their most harmful refrigerants.

Dealing with elephants

How do we gain the confidence to spot elephants and talk about them for what they are?  Maybe we can think about it like a first date with a few simple rules.

  1. Know who you are. As a business this means understanding your impacts and having a plan to deal with them, as with the PVC and PFI examples.

  2. Set clear boundaries. You don’t have to disclose all your secrets on the first date but be clear about what parts of the business you are not comfortable sharing. Avoid awkward conversations later on by having a plan to work on your issues behind closed doors. Patagonia didn’t start its sustainability journey with one advert in The Times.

  3. Be authentic and real. It’s great to celebrate your successes but don’t be afraid to acknowledge and accept your flaws either. Be prepared to step into difficult conversations especially when they line up neatly with your purpose, such as the Great Minds platform.

When it comes to sustainability – progress will come from challenging the status quo.

That means addressing the difficult topics to take more meaningful steps towards a future that is environmentally restorative, socially just and economically inclusive.

Article originally published by Kat McDonald on LinkedIn.  Contact Kat to discover more about how Proxima can help you address the elephants in the room.

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