Sustainability is a Technology

November 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Whether you’re a business executive, a volunteer or staff in the non-profit sector, helping government to function, or (we hope not) unemployed, you know how tight money is today. It’s difficult it is to find funds when you need them even for the best of causes. Then along come the next hot topic: Sustainability. So suddenly we are all expected, and expect ourselves, to take action. We face big issues: global warming, climate change, energy security, world hunger and poverty, import safety, food security, and many others. But if sustainability is seen as yet another thing you have to do — an extra item on your already full plate — how likely is it to get serious attention or real money? It will become just another charity, engaging us once or twice a year. And that is not going to do the trick.

Be more sustainable.

Our hearts, and all the media messages, tell us this is the right thing to do. Yet how? Not only are money and time scarce, but where do we start? The UN Bruntland Commission suggests that sustainable approaches must

“meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The UN definition is great, but it gives one very little to work with. It defines an outcome but provides no method.

Virtually nothing we do today meets the UN requirement. We’re not even close. There is not a single 100% sustainable home. In the transportation arena bicycles come close, but they scarcely meet all our transportation needs. The average supermarket food item travels over 1500 miles to its spot on the shelf–how can that possibly become sustainable? It begins to seem a bit hopeless…

Sustainability is a tool.

I think we’re looking at it all wrong. True, there’s very little most of us can do as individuals or organizations to solve the big issues, but we can contribute incrementally and should. We need to realize that a problem that was decades in the making will take considerable time to solve. In the meantime, ask not what you can do for sustainability, ask what it can do for you. And it can do a lot. As a specialized variant of systems thinking, it provides an alternative way to conceptualize issues. It focuses organizational relationships and creates breakthroughs by breaching the walls that surround specialized interests and activities. It will help you spend every dollar more than once by uncovering synergies. The state-of-being we call sustainability is not even particularly desirable. As Bill McDonough has asked, who wants a merely sustainable meal, or relationship, or life? We should have as abundance our goal–absurd, ridiculous, thriving prosperity for all people. Sustainability is simply the baseline condition required to maintain the earth’s equilibrium.

Focus on compelling interests.

In our roles as employees, executives, non-profit staff, or board members we have a job to do. Completing the job or fulfilling the mission requires clear focus. Unrelated diversions are the last thing we need. Sustainability can be sought in and through the core concerns we face every day. Become familiar with the triple bottom line. Sustainability has (at least) three core aspects: the environmental, the economic, and the social. This is more than just jargon. Understanding the linkages is one of the keys to true organizational effectiveness.

With the current interest in climate change, the environmental aspect tends to take center stage. But most non-profits are already working in the social and economic realms. Give yourself credit for all of the sustainable activities you already engage in, and don’t get too distracted by trying to do what you think you ought at the expense of your core mission. Make sure that anything you pursue to target “sustainable” goals also helps your overall effort. For example, don’t go crazy about reducing paper use if it prevents you from carefully proofing that big grant application.

Problems are resources.

Problems are very interesting. Virtually every problem we face as a world society was created, in fact engineered, by us humans. Of course they weren’t intended to be problems. Call it the law of unintended consequences. Or call it the road to hell. Good intentions are not enough. Burning coal seemed like a good idea. So did prohibition. Conversely, the solution is often inherent in the problem itself. An example: At Christy Webber Landscapes’ (CWL) new building on Chicago’s west side, 25,000 gallons of rain water are collected from the rooftop every month to fill tank trucks that irrigate landscape installation and maintenance projects throughout the City. Conventionally, this storm water would have been routed to the sewer and then on to a treatment facility. CWL would have had to buy Chicago drinking water for plant watering instead. Waste becomes resource and, at the same time, sustainability is served.

Sustainability is a great goal, but if you can regard it as a means as well as an end you’ll be able to serve your mission while moving toward the goal. You’ll get much more bang for your hard-earned buck. Sustainability can enhance your focus rather being yet another “should” for which you have neither time nor money.

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