Defining Sustainability for Strategy

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Defining Sustainability for Strategy

Sustainability is now the most important and ambiguous term in policy making. Most organizations and governments are simply reacting to crisis instead of developing resilience.

Resilience is adaptation. Human impacts on the environment have a profound and systemic effect from human health to ecosystem services. What must be listed, examined and engineered are the human processes identified to have the impact. Some impacts are difficult to point to any one cause or entity – much like non-point source pollution – it comes from somewhere but to look upstream and find an exact location and single source is difficult. Such as with cancer and other human disease. We know we are contributing to disease but to eliminate every cause is becoming more unlikely.

In a sustainability approach such as corporate social responsibility, the organization may list and measure a number of variables to monitor how it performs in ecosystem footprinting, waste and human health. However, becoming a little more aware or a little less unsustainable is still unsustainable. Human processes, procedures and resource use have to be incorporated in the policy.

The mission exerted by the organization contains everything that encompasses the vision and can drive the mandate towards sustainability. Progress is incremental, considering that organizations are still coming out of the industrial age and (supposedly) moving into the information age. This still leaves the discussion around growth on a finite planet, however, we will leave that for another time. Sustainability is more than about being able to survive, it is about learning how to thrive. We must know what we are aiming for to encourage direction. Be definitive, be optimistic and realistic in the description of sustainability for your purpose.

When people ask about direction, I use this metaphor to build an understanding:

We are all in a sports utility vehicle using a lot of gas, heading towards a cliff. Everyone is busy, so busy trying to find ways to make the vehicle more efficient. We are squeezing every last atom to ensure our success at efficiency. Instead of finding the brakes and turning around to see where we have been we have spent our time saving gas. Sometimes we must take a step back and move in another direction to make real progress.

About the Author:

Christopher Caldwell is an author and educator in organizational sustainability, leadership and change.

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