Collaborating for Systemic Change

Meeting the sustainability challenge will require the kind of cross-sector collaboration for which there is still no real precedent. It must be co-created by various stakeholders by interweaving work in three realms: the conceptual, the relational and the action-driven.

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For more than a century and a half, industrial growth has been weaving an ever-thickening web of interdependence around the world. Today, consumer choices on one side of the planet affect living conditions for people on the other side. Complex supply chains span the globe; for example, the average pound of food travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before it reaches an American consumer.1 But these developments do not alter biological or social realities that have taken shape over thousands and millions of years. Consequently, businesses operating within this growing web are facing a host of “sustainability” problems: social and ecological imbalances created by this globalization, such as a widening social divide between haves and have-nots, global climate change, exponentially growing chemical and material waste and loss of habitat and species.

Traditionally, businesses have thought such problems to be the result of economic externalities that require governments’ attention. But while governments are a crucial part of lasting change, relying on governmental leadership to effectively deal with sustainability is questionable for many reasons. The first limitation is geography. Even the largest governmental institutions are limited by their borders and can’t attack sustainability problems that are global in nature. The second limitation is time. Elected officials are limited by their election cycles and struggle to deal with problems that develop over decades and don’t align with their time in office. Moreover, due to increased fragmentation in democratic societies, problems that transcend those of specialized interests tend to fall by the wayside.

For these and many more reasons, businesses are finding themselves compelled to exercise leadership around a host of sustainability issues. In particular, recognizing the limitations of what can be done in isolation, many business leaders have already formed collaborative initiatives like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies and Societies and the Global Reporting Initiative. In spite of such initiatives, however, there are challenges we are just beginning to recognize. (See “About the Research.”)

About the Research »



1. B. Halweil, “Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market,” November 2002,

2. See;; and B. May, D. Leadbitter, M. Sutton and M. Weber, “The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC),” in “Eco-labelling in Fisheries: What Is It All About?” ed. B. Phillips, T. Ward and C. Chaffee (Oxford: Blackwell Science, 2003), 14–33.

3. P.E. Steinberg, “Fish or Foul: Investigating the Politics of the Marine Stewardship Council” (paper presented at the Conference for Marine Environmental Politics in the 21st Century, Berkeley, California, April 30-May 2, 1999),

4. S. Waddell, “Societal Learning and Change: How Governments, Business and Civil Society Are Creating Solutions to Complex Multi-Stakeholder Problems” (Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing, 2005).

5. See; S. Schley and J. Laur, “The Sustainability Challenge: Ecological and Economic Development,” The Systems Thinker 7, no. 7 (September 1996): 1–7; and C.O. Scharmer and P. Senge, “Community Action Research,” in “Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice,” ed. P. Reason and H. Bradbury (London: Sage Publications, 2001), 238–249.

6. P.M. Senge, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1990/2006); P.M. Senge, A. Kleiner, C. Robers, R. Ross and B. Smith, “The Fifth Discipline Field-book: Strategies and Tools For Building a Learning Organization” (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1994); G. Roth and P.M. Senge, “From Theory to Practice: Research Territory, Processes and Structure At an Organizational Learning Centre,” Journal of Organizational Change Management 7, no. 5 (February 1996): 92–106; and

7. P.M. Senge and G. Carstedt, “Innovating Our Way to the Next Industrial Revolution,” MIT Sloan Management Review 42, no. 2 (winter 2001): 24–38; and J. Ehrenfeld, “Learning and Change in the SoL Consortium” (presentation at the Harley-Davidson Consortium meeting, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 9–11, 2003),

8. For a more comprehensive list and short analysis of 21 different frameworks, see J. Elkington, “Triple Bottom Line Reporting,” 2003,

9. See

10. P. Hawken, A. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999).

11. See

12. See

13. J.M. Benyus, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature” (New York: Morrow, 1997); and

14. H.A. Verfaillie and R. Bidwell, “Measuring Eco-Efficiency: A Guide to Reporting Company Performance” (Geneva: World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 2000).

15. A. Sturm, M. Wackernagel and K. Müller, “The Winners and Losers in Global Competition: Why Eco-Efficiency Reinforces Competitiveness: A Study of 44 Nations” (Zürich: Verlag Rüegger, 2000); and www.ecological

16. See United Nations Environment Program/Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry cooperation on best available practice in life-cycle assessment,

17. W. McDonough and M. Braungart, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” (New York: North Point Press, 2002).

18. B.J. Bulkin, J. Ehrenfeld, C. Gray, P. Morris, R. Saillant, T. Savino, T. Reese and P.M. Senge, “Integrating Frameworks For Sustainability,” working paper, SoL Sustainability Consortium, Cambridge, Massachusetts, May, 2000 (revised, January 2002),

19. These three terms were influenced by the writings of John Ehrenfeld. For example, see J. Ehrenfeld, “Searching for Sustainability: No Quick Fix,” Reflections 5, no. 8 (2004): 1–12.

20. World Commission on Sustainable Development; see

21. J. Benyus, “Biomimicry” (New York: Morrow, 1997).

22. See

23. A similar project is now underway among consortium members, seeking to clarify the social dimensions of sustainability. See SoL Societal Dimensions Workgroup, “Social Dimensions of Sustainability Frameworks Document” (presentation at SoL Sustainability Consortium, Brewster, Massachusetts, April 26–28, 2005),

24. The Working Group on Sustainability Frameworks, SoL Sustainability Consortium,Integrating Frameworks for Sustainability (Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 2001),

25. Anthony Reese, director of engineering planning, Harley-Davidson Motor Company, 2004.

26. This phrase is a favorite of Karl-Hènrik Robèrt, the Swedish oncologist and pioneer of The Natural Step framework.

27. G.P. Richardson, “Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); and Senge et al., “Fifth Discipline Fieldbook,” 1994.

28. Y.L. Doz and G. Hamel, “Alliance Advantage: The Art of Creating Value Through Partnering” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998); and L.C. Abrams, R. Cross, E. Lesser and D. Z. Levin, “Nurturing Interpersonal Trust in Knowledge-Sharing Networks,” Academy of Management Executive, 17, no. 4 (2003): 64–77.

29. J. Browne and D. Isaacs, “The World Café: Shaping Our Future Through Conversations That Matter” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005), 5.

30. Ibid.

31. Oxfam International, “Mugged: Poverty in your Coffee Cup” (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxfam 2002).

32. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets,” 2004,

33. Business participants included Unilever, General Mills, Rabobank, SYSCO (the world’s largest food distributor), Nutreco (the world’s largest fish farming company) and Sadia (one of Brazil’s few multinational food companies), along with smaller food companies and farm cooperatives. Senior government officials from Europe and South America were involved, along with global NGOs like Oxfam, World Wildlife Fund, Consumers International and The Nature Conservancy and local NGOs from Suriname, Brazil, the United States, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.

34. Scharmer describes the method-of-learning journey in C.O. Scharmer, “Theory U: Learning From the Future As It Emerges” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: SoL, in press).

35. Sustainability Institute Report, “Commodity Systems Challenges: Moving Sustainability into the Mainstream of Natural Resource Economics,” (Hartland, Vermont: Sustainability Institute 2003); and

36. Brown and Isaacs, “World Café”; and Senge, “Fifth Discipline,” 357–360.

37. As a comparison, see R. Bouwen and T. Taillieu, “Multi-Party Collaboration As Social Learning For Interdependence: Developing Relational Knowing For Sustainable Natural Resource Management,” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 14 (2004): 137–153.

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