Why Such a Fuss?

Herman Daly

Herman Daly

So, why all of the fuss now over this thing called sustainability? You hear it everywhere, people are talking about it at meetings and conferences are being held in its name. What was the tipping point that brought this concept to mainstream America. I’ve heard it described as the perfect storm; Katrina, Al Gore’s Oscar and then the Nobel Peace Prize.

This may have given the environmental issues of the planet press coverage, but what about the Social and the Financial aspects? What caused them to be pushed to the boardroom and news desk? Asked another way, have the Social and Financial aspects been pushed to the forefront?

Don’t get me wrong. Understanding and limiting our environmental impacts are very important! But, when you only focus on one of the three aspects you have a very limited view of the future. The world may very well be able to carry on quite well without us, but, and this is important, we are still here!

While we are here, we will continue to work, eat, build, earn money, spend money, gather together, and reproduce.

Our biggest challenge is understanding and planning how we will do these activities in the future. Do we only want to focus on growth, believing that bigger is better? Or, do we want to focus on developing? Developing our companies and people so that they are better; better at utilizing energy, water, materials, time, creativity and profitability.

Sustainable Development is not a philosophical set of values. It may have been introduced that way, just as many great movements have been throughout the world. Think about it, two or three people with shared visions gather together exchange ideas and soon they have developed their vision into a shared purpose. They have documented their principles, desires and beliefs. The next thing you know, they have a constitution.

Today, sustainable development is being accepted as a strategic initiative and a model for innovation, yet it’s definition is still considered vague by many.

Herman E. Daly wrote in Beyond Growth:

The power of the concept of sustainable development is that it both reflects and evokes a latent shift in our vision of how the economic activities of human beings are related to the natural world – an ecosystem which is finite, non-growing, and materially closed.

What if General Motors stopped for just a moment and thought about this before they started their restructuring process. What if they said “Ok, we are going to be creating a new automobile company in an ecosystem that is limited. How are we going to create a vehicle that can be developed and sold in these conditions?” Would they first look at the aesthetics of the design of the vehicles or the assembly process. Or, would they first take a cradle2cradle approach to the materials used in the current manufacturing process and the deconstruction of the vehicles and look for cost saving activities here that could lead to potential product differentiation features offered to consumers.

For me, sustainable development has been about improvement. Improvement in our processes, our people, our planet and our profits. These are not vague concepts. These improvements can be touched, measured and weighed.

If we ever needed a time to improve, now is the time. And, that’s a pretty good reason to get excited.

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