There is a not-so-quiet revolution taking place. This revolution involves some pretty savvy thinking to integrate economic prosperity with social and environmental well-being. Termed “sustainability” or “sustainable development,” there are vast differences in what this should practically mean in today’s world of hyper-individualism, materialism, media overload and technological wizardry.
The meaning of sustainability has been around for a very long time. Most literature, however, points to a 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development that defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Still rather vague, an operational interpretation emerged out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was called the “triple bottom line,” and it described sustainable development as an ideology to protect the earth, improve social conditions and lead to economic prosperity.
The sustainability movement can be discussed from both an individual and corporate perspective. At the individual level, it requires a new level of knowing how economic, environmental and social variables are embodied in our culture and institutionalized within an organization. It does this by calling into question phenomena that drive everyday experience by shaping worldviews and attitudes, which, in turn, influence decisions.
For example, power-transmission companies must contend with power outages and fires created by vegetative growth around the power lines. As a result, protecting the power lines is essential for ensuring uninterrupted service. Therefore, any method necessary to control vegetative growth is fair game – lumbering, vegetative maintenance or pesticide application. Environmental stakeholders concerned about protecting vegetation often disapprove of certain vegetative-control techniques. In recourse, they approach legislatures and lobby for policy and regulation to enforce what might be perceived as more environmentally friendly vegetative-control mechanisms. The process is legitimate but often results in unproductive dialogue and less than optimal outcomes.
A sustainable planning technique approaches the issue by analyzing the power-line dispute from more than one dimension. Not only is it important to protect the power lines from the vegetation, it is just as important to protect the vegetation from the power lines. This tactic offers opportunity to address the problem from varying perspectives. In practice, it has led to greater stakeholder engagement, more dialogue and triple bottom-line solutions.
From a corporate standpoint, “sustainability posits that private-sector companies should not only create economic value and provide goods and services that enhance the standard of living, but that they should also engage actively in mitigating the different environmental and social problems they cause through their activities.1” Those thinking that this reality is nonexistent in today’s free market need to be reminded of the folks who believed that computers were nothing more than a fad. Progressive companies have already begun using a number of management tools to better understand this issue.
To some degree, organizations embracing this approach to innovation have realized success. The testimonies, however, are at best mixed primarily because there is still a lot of confusion on what sustainability should mean and how success is defined. A recent German study confirms this by showing that the understanding of sustainability is varied and subject to multiple degrees of interpretation1. Nonetheless, there is consistency within the literature that sustainability (under varying meanings) is important for maintaining and improving the standard of living.
With the human being trapped in pragmatism, little time is allocated for thinking deeply on complex issues. Business thinkers are no exception to this way of legitimizing their actions within organizations. Cast into appeasing shareholders in the short-term, leaders have become resourceful in packaging single-sided ideas as outcomes of “strategic business negotiations.” This weathervane form of leadership is often misinterpreted as the sustenance to success while indirectly starving innovative ideas. The result can mean winning the battles but losing the war. Sustainability thinking offers a new way to reconcile competing interests by making factors that have traditionally been marginalized in an effort to build better solutions relevant. IH
Sustainability - Thinking for the Next Generation
February 1, 2007