What Is Sustainability?

What Is a Systems Perspective? 7

Diversity and resiliency 10

Centralization and Decentralization 16

Cooperation and Competition 21

ecological Vitality 24

social Vitality 26

Financial Vitality 30

Ап ecosystem of stakeholders 33

a Careful Balance 36


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ecause sustainability means different things to different groups and individ­uals, this makes it sometimes difficult to discuss it, so I’ll just give you my definition. For example, I met a “conservative environ­mentalist” once who was chiefly focused on climate and carbon issues. His advice to me on my own project, Reveal (a sustainability rating and labeling system for consumers—see Chap­ter 17), was to measure only climate-related issues (like carbon dioxide production) and leave the social issues for people to figure out on their own. My response was that if custom­ers discovered that the product they believed to be “better” due to the ratings actually had questionable social impacts (such as animal cruelty or child or slave labor), all trust would dissipate for both those products and the rating system.

Therefore, the only way to approach sustain­ability effectively is from a systems perspective. We need to consider a wide perspective before diving into details. Because most things are connected to most other things, to design any-

thing effectively requires considering what it connects to. This necessitates folding financial, social, and environmental issues together—at least at some point. For sure, these issues are widely different and require specialized knowl­edge and solutions, but no solution can be addressed effectively without considering its impact across all three areas. You will find, in practice, that you can’t solve everything. How­ever, you will need to be ready to address why you can’t do everything. And, just possibly, in the process you may find that you can address more aspects than everyone around you sus – pected—which is quite often the result of good design. Constraints are a challenge for design­ers, not a limitation.

One serious problem for designers is that, even with a systems approach, there are few tools in existence that wrap these issues together. In­stead, designers must learn to patch together a series of disparate approaches, understandings, and frameworks in order to build a complete solution. The good news is that these differ­ent frameworks are compatible, as you’ll see in

Chapter 3, “What Are the Approaches to Sus­tainability?”. Their vocabulary may be slightly different, but a meta-framework can be built that organizes a coherent and somewhat com­plete approach to sustainability. This is what I’ve tried to do in this book.

To address the three domains of human, natu­ral, and financial capital, it’s important to un­derstand some of the issues central to each. Different contexts can change the priorities or urgencies of each, but all of these themes are relevant and important to understanding why sustainability is imperative.

You will find, in practice, that you can’t solve everything. However, you will need to be ready to address why you can’t do everything. And, just possibly, in the process you may find that you can address more aspects than everyone around you suspect­ed—which is quite often the result of good design.

Although this is the most important part of the story, it’s still often not good enough for many clients, companies, or business people who just don’t understand why these issues should be dealt with by themselves and their businesses. For them, there is another set of issues that might be more influential in changing their opinions. I won’t go into these in much detail since they aren’t really design issues but fol­lowing is a list for you to explore further. The better you understand these issues, the more persuasively you can help your company’s and client’s goals align with those of sustainability.

• Even the business press regularly reports on sustainability and social responsibility issues. This not only creates validation for sustainability efforts, but it can also exert important peer pressure on business leaders and managers to “get on the bandwagon” before their competitors.

• At its heart, sustainability is about efficien­cy. There’s not a manager or leader in the world who isn’t looking for his or her orga-

nization to be more efficient. Being able to reduce expenses—especially at a time when costs of almost everything are skyrocket­ing—is always good business.

• Sustainability is not a fad (changes that are fleeting), it’s a trend (changes that will en­dure). Whether in the consumer markets or the business markets, more and more customers are concerned with environmen­tal and social issues. There are opportuni­ties for businesses to take advantage of this trend by aligning their brand and promo­tional efforts with those of the society as a whole—as long as it’s authentic. Otherwise, being exposed for greenwashing is probably worse than not doing anything at all (more about this in Chapter 18).

• Customers, shareholders, investors, and other stakeholders are quickly joining the sustainability wave—no matter how they articulate it. Investors (in particular pen­sion, retirement, and other large funds) are moving their money to investments that align with their longer-term values.

• For many companies, sustainability focuses on risk mitigation (reducing financial and other costs associated with potential risks), especially for insurance, reinsurance, and health-related companies. Any company with a stake in the long term is looking to mitigate its operational and financial risks over that amount of time.

• Governments at all levels are also quickly shifting regulations—especially at the state and local levels—to reinforce and reward organizations that take sustainability seri­ously. The business world can fight this all they want, but if they lose, they’ll have to make the changes anyway—after their com­petitors have already mounted the learning curve ahead of them.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 2:47 am