Take Care Using the Word ‘Sustainability’

By Roberto Piccioni
Published November 13, 2009



Why do some people bluster when you talk about sustainability while others get excited?
Consider the question: “How’s your marriage?”
Answer: “Fine, it’s sustainable.”

The terms and concepts of sustainability, and corporate social responsibility seem to have entered our everyday vocabulary and lifestyle, but these terms are packed with contextual meaning — and not everyone can have a conversation with a common understanding of these issues.

It’s important to pursue the objectives of sustainability without using the term explicitly or excessively, according to Peter Senge, author of “The Necessary Revolution” and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Senge delivered a keynote address two weeks ago in Albuquerque at the National Association of EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) Management Forum, which covered a range of strategic and tactical practices used by EHS and sustainability managers today. Five hundred attendees from some of the most recognized brands and industries studied and discussed these concepts of systemic thinking and a variety of other strategic business issues.

Senge’s recent work on these issues is fascinating, with core messages focused on innovation, challenging assumptions and redefining objectives.

Sure, we know everything is connected — our use of energy here creates polar ice cap melting. Our purchase of tennis shoes here, creates a job in a Chinese factory thousands of miles away. But our cherished planet’s natural resources and ecosystem services, upon which we depend, are being overused by 30 percent annually, and data compiled by National Center for Health Statistics indicate that, despite world-record healthcare costs, some in our country are facing shorter lifespan than that of their elders. Whoa?!

We often frame boundaries and our behaviors around the issues we control without recognizing the impact to the larger system, Senge explained. As we set objectives for our organization, we sometimes limit our recognition of what we can impact. We develop products and services — and sometimes are slow to acknowledge the load we place on the larger system. So how is the energy produced that I use, and where are my new shoes from and what’s the impact of these everyday decisions and behaviors I make?

When we think about the risks and opportunities associated with sustainability, let’s not limit our thinking to just our behaviors, or our organization, but let’s think broadly about our species and our planet.

Sound wacky? Let yourself believe that thinking bigger allows us to do more. We can aspire to a larger good beyond the limits where we currently focus, we can discuss and learn together about new models of impact — and we can have a positive impact on the complexity and interconnectedness that surrounds us.

A noteworthy example spotlighted by Senge is Coca Cola. Despite their compliant operations and appropriate business objectives, they’ve realized the vital and strategic importance of addressing and responding to the water resource issue more broadly. They have realized it’s an issue challenging mankind — and it’s inextricably linked to their business.

Coke’s goal of neutral-water usage focuses on “returning to communities and to nature an amount of water equivalent to what we use in all of our beverages and their production.” Coke is focused on water minimization in their processes, recycling water wherever possible, returning it to the environment effectively, and partnering with NGOs like World Wildlife Fund and other local organizations to make a difference for communities and the natural environment through locally relevant projects.

Are they perfect? No. Do they have all the answers? No. But they’re focusing and improving — and recognizing their larger role. They have broadened their boundaries and they are responding to the risks and opportunities of sustainability.

That’s an example all of us can reflect upon.

Roberto Piccioni provides sustainability and environmental management consulting services and teaches Sustainable Operations Management in the Green MBA program at Dominican University, which also offers focused workshops with international thought leaders on applying and practicing various concepts of systemic thinking.


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