Sustainability?

We are encouraged by the general concepts and potential of “sustainability,” and we appreciate that some businesses and organizations are genuinely adopting these concepts into their strategic planning and operations.  However, we also see much within the movement that merits heavy criticism. 

We actively embrace a role in this debate, asking difficult questions of the actors, institutions, and socio-cultural processes behind the status quo of sustainability.  This will only serve to increase accountability of what the “movement” claims to be doing, and as such, is a fundamental part of “getting it right.” Continue below to read our critique of “sustainability."


Sustainability Critique

From a practical perspective, “sustainability” comprises little more than surface level actions based on a vague intuition that things need to be done more responsibly.  As a concept, sustainability lacks structure, which means that as a movement, sustainability lacks a unifying and inspirational message for people to understand, support, and integrate into their daily lives.  As a result, sustainability has become more of a branded industry driven by profit, as opposed to an ethically based movement of good driven by solving the problems we face at their root.  (See Jesse’s TedX talk by clicking here.)

Individuals – as citizens, community members, and consumers – are increasingly left out of this “movement,” when we are its most important players.  Economics illustrates our collective individual power through “supply and demand.” Unfortunately, however, we have done very little to seize control of the power our demand holds.  This needs to change; and until it does, none of the problems we face (and we face many) can be effectively dealt with.  The key to understanding this is acknowledging that the “powers that be” have little incentive to systemically change anything … until we, as a collective movement, actively demand better. 

The following video could not capture more clearly what is wrong with the sustainability movement today.  The founder and chief partner of Natural Capitalism Solutions, Hunter Lovins has emerged as one of the most influential players in sustainability today.  Her company works on a very large scale, crafting a narrative of sustainability designed to appeal to business interests through increased profitability and positive branding.  She openly tells us that sustainability is NOT about Polar Bears (i.e. the environment), nor is it about altruism (i.e. helping people in extreme need); sustainability in her world is about profitability, and since you the consumer have no idea what you want, it is up to the business community to give you what you don’t know you need.  After all, in her view, the business community is the only “institution” capable of implementing any meaningful change on a global scale.  (see Hunter Lovins’ video by clicking here.) 

The reason she can make these claims is because we have failed to demand better, and because the leaders within the sustainability movement have failed (miserably) at crafting a narrative of change that demands comprehensive and integrated actions outside of the business community.  Obviously, business needs to be key player in moving the sustainability movement forward, however, they should NOT be the key drivers in defining the movement – which they currently are.  The only thing we need to understand is that the business community has ONE goal: profit maximization.  While there is nothing wrong with maximizing profit, it poses an obvious conflict of interest with a comprehensive and integrated approach to sustainability.  

Almost any business would be more than happy to adopt piecemeal sustainability practices (such as energy efficiency measures and waste stream reductions) that increase profitability and can be used to brand them as “sustainable.”  Sustainability practitioners and consultants (like Hunter Lovins) continue to preach “baby steps,” “low hanging fruits,” and “profitability;” unfortunately, these concepts prevent us from addressing the full scope of issues we face, and do not push for significant enough actions that legitimately provoke change.  The time has come for baby steps to turn into adult steps, to reach higher up the tree for the fruit that has a bigger impact, and for us to look beyond profit as the overall motive for action.