The Roots of Sustainability

The real business case for sustainability requires more radical, fundamental and difficult change than most are ready to consider, but anything less ignores the real problem and may, in fact, contribute to it.

Management literature today abounds with stories about the business case for sustainability. Eco-efficiency, or delivering more value for less environmental burden, has been touted as the primary instrument for achieving sustainability. So has socially responsible investing —using the power of the financial market to punish the bad guys and reward those firms that are doing the “right” thing. Many companies now offer slick “sustainability reports” along with their annual reports as indicators of their performance. The problem is that none of this espoused benevolence creates true sustainability. At best, it only temporarily slows society’s continuing drift toward unsustainability; at worst, it serves as feel-good marketing for products and services that in fact degrade and pollute our environment and fail to meaningfully satisfy the needs of consumers.

The root of this problem is neither business’s misunderstanding of what’s at stake nor corporate cynicism about the sustainability cause (though these may be contributing factors). The problem really stems from management’s failure to see unsustainability as a deep-seated systems failure and to appreciate the extent to which radical thinking and action are required to embark upon a sustainable trajectory. Given this great blindness, one must ask a critical question: Can anything be done to radically transform the way that businesses work?

The idea of what is referred to as “sustainable development” arose in part when people became aware that we could no longer maintain our global drive toward continuing economic growth without exhausting our finite resources. (Many claim that we already have exceeded the capacity to support the current level of affluence.) And no rational person, except perhaps the most technologically optimistic economist, would claim that projected global population levels can be sustained at anywhere near the levels of affluence found in the United States or other highly developed countries. To date, however, virtually all efforts to produce sustainable development have been little more than Band-Aids. Many, such as increases in automobile fuel efficiency, come in the form of technical quick fixes.

Shifting the Burden

Over time, the business community has gotten in the habit of ignoring the source of the problem, and now it risks gradually losing the ability to think deeply about it in order to produce the right kind of innovative solutions. The systems dynamics community calls this behavioral pattern “shifting the burden.&

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