The Hidden Price of Simplifying Sustainability: Rethinking How We Think about Sustainable Systems

Kevin Lynch Sustainability


Tackling sustainability requires a perspective that sees pieces as they relate to the whole.

Tackling sustainability requires a perspective that sees pieces as they relate to the whole.

Note: This article first appeared on the blog of the Corporate Responsibility Officer’s Association

A few years ago, I led a strategic initiative for the ownership of a multi-tenant 50 story commercial building. Our goal was to be the first large-scale multi-tenant existing building to achieve LEED platinum status. We quickly learned that we could not achieve our goal without the cooperation of the tenants of the building.

For those of us in the sustainability arena, one of the great frustrations involves the definition of sustainability. We can find multiple definitions and debate them at length. One definition I have been giving thought to lately can be found on the website for Natural Capitalism Solutions and is as follows:

Sustainability is the careful and efficient stewardship of resources by businesses, communities and citizens. It is the practice of meeting our needs in ways that are respectful of future generations and restorative of natural, cultural, and financial assets. Sustainable management is a whole systems approach to achieving superior performance in delivering desired outcomes to all stakeholders by business, government, and civil society. It is achieved by implementing the three principles of Natural Capitalism which are (1) Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively, (2) Redesign industrial processes and the delivery of products and services to do business as nature does, using such approaches as biomimicry and cradle to cradle, and (3) Manage all institutions to be restorative of natural and human capital.

At the heart of this definition is a whole-systems approach to sustainability. Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, gives a wonderful overview of systems thinking paraphrased as follows:

To begin to understand systems thinking, consider that the earth is an indivisible whole, just as each of us is an indivisible whole. Nature is not made up of parts within wholes. It is made up of wholes within wholes. From an early age, we are taught to break apart problems. This makes complex tasks more manageable, but we pay a hidden price.

We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. Then we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces, in order to see the big picture. However this is futile. Thus, we give up on trying to see the whole.

Systems thinking is the key component (Senge calls this the “fifth discipline”) as it integrates and fuses all of the components into a coherent body of theory and practice, and allows the whole to exceed the sum of the parts It is a framework for seeing these interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.

Once we develop our fifth discipline, a systems-thinking approach to sustainability, we can open the door to resolving the challenges we face every day within our organizations of balancing the need to operate in responsible manner and the need to meet our business objectives. Society has rising expectations for business, health, safety, social well-being, and the environment. The traditional business model does not account for these needs. Leaders and managers are facing new trade-offs and are concerned about satisfying all stakeholders. As Dr. Nancy Alder once wrote, we “cannot create financially successful companies and an equitable, peaceful, sustainable world by applying yesterday’s approaches to business.” Business leaders today require a fifth discipline, a systems-thinking approach to the challenges of a complex world.

Back to the case of the fifty-story building: we quickly learned that we needed to treat the tenants as part of the solution, as part of the system. In hind sight, we were using our fifth discipline to resolve the challenge. It worked. We achieved platinum status for the building.

Dr. Kevin Lynch is Leadership Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. As a practitioner, academic and consultant, Kevin specializes in assisting organizations that are experiencing rapid change, particularly with regard to strategic growth decisions, and the implementation of appropriate organizational infrastructure. Before joining the Center, Kevin was a senior executive in the real estate industry. He also is co-owner of Williams and Hall, a wilderness canoe outfitting business in Ely, Minnesota.

Find more on sustainable business practices from Kevin and others here, including Kevin’s “10 Book Primer on Sustainability.”

Image credit James Jordan via Compfight cc

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