At the A-list conferences on sustainability and business, Amory Lovins is the speaker whom all the other speakers mention from the stage. He’s the touchstone — the talisman that others figuratively hold aloft in order to reaffirm their own sustainability bona fides and intellectual chops.
It’s not clear whether Lovins even notices — or cares. He sits in the front row, bespectacled and mild mannered, and mostly appears to be curious — about everything — and to have no time for fluff. There’s work to do. He’s there to do it.
And thus has it been for Lovins for decades, especially since his 1982 cofounding of the famous Rocky Mountain Institute, an entrepreneurial, nonprofit “think-and-do tank” that, according to Lovins, continues to be misunderstood. “Our DNA is that of practitioners, not theorists. We do solutions. Occasionally I read in the press, to some dismay or amusement, that we are an environmental think tank; we are actually neither,” he says. “Our work is in advanced energy and resource efficiency.” Notably, RMI claims that half its revenues are earned helping implement what it learns in research. (The other half are from typical nonprofit sources.)
Lovins has worked the intersection of sustainability and business for longer than most of us have known the intersection exists, along the way authoring dozens of books, including the pathbreaking Natural Capitalism — Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, and receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” He spoke with MIT Sloan Management Review editor-in-chief Michael S. Hopkins as part of the Business of Sustainability research project.
When audiences of organization leaders ask what you mean by “sustainability,” what do you tell them?
The question wouldn’t arise because I don’t use the word.
What do you say instead?
I say what I mean. “Sustainability” means so many things to so many people that it’s pretty useless. There are various standard definitions you can quote (Brundtland, Forum for the Future, etc.), but none is generally accepted.
But behind your question is the core of something very important: the idea that doing business as if nature and people were properly valued actually creates stunning competitive advantage. To put it another way, if capitalism is a productive use of and reinvestment in capital, we can’t deal only with financial and physical capital — money and goods. We also need to productively use and reinvest in the two more valuable kinds of capital — people and nature.