Environmentalism and Sustainable Development – Take 2

This post is a revision and upcycle of Environmentalism and Sustainable Development from April 2014. It brings context and a much needed degree of clarity to the often convoluted discussion of Sustainability as applied to business.  – C.H.

Some Operational Definitions

>> EnvironmentalismThe active recognition that the natural world sustains all life on this planet, that the capacity of the natural world is limited, and that the natural world needs active protection from human abuse and degradation.

>> Sustainable DevelopmentEconomic activity that meets the needs of humanity today without sacrificing the needs of future generations.

>> SustainabilityA business philosophy through which firms pursue long-term viability and growth while actively respecting the needs of the natural world and of humanity.

The Big Picture

Here’s the big picture view of Sustainable Development: Consider the entire planet, all of humanity, and the entirety of world industry, [1] where “industry” includes manufacturing, mining, agriculture, forestry and any other activity the produces commercial “stuff” (goods, not services). Humanity currently consists of about 7 billion of us, expected to grow to around 9.5 billion by 2050. Many are very poor. Almost all want to become richer and consume more, which is happening. Something like 2.5 billion people are expected to rise above subsistence poverty over the same period. So, the global demand for commercial “stuff” continues to increase. Rapidly.

3P GraphicHowever, the earth isn’t getting any bigger. The sum total of natural resources isn’t growing either. Nor is the space available for waste disposal. The natural world is under duress, and increasing demand for “stuff” is going to increase that pressure. So, the ecological “bottom line” improves when detrimental impact on the natural world decreases, while the social “bottom line” improves when the welfare of humanity improves.

The latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change cites some of the dangers the natural world — and humanity with it — may face in the near future. However, should the poorer fraction of humanity continue to be denied improved access to economic benefits others enjoy, social and political upheavals may well cause as much, if not more misery than natural disasters.

It is for industry to resolve these two: to create value, in the form of the “stuff” that an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population demands; while preserving or, better yet, enhancing the natural environment upon which humanity relies today and will continue to rely in the future. All the while, in doing so, earning sufficient profits to keep the improvement process going.

Why is this for industry to resolve? As entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken put it: “… not only is business and industry the principal instrument of global destruction, it is the only institution large enough, wealthy enough, and pervasive and powerful enough to lead humankind out of the mess we are making.” [2]

The Way Forward

What does all of this mean for actually operating a manufacturing business? It means that times have changed. Today, all manufacturers face a competitive environment driven by a confluence of potent change drivers which substantially increase the scope of issues to which managers must attend. Surviving, let alone thriving, in today’s competitive environment requires a fresh line of strategic thought that is aligned to present realities. Fortunately, such a line of strategic thought — Sustainability — does exist. More fortunately still, it works!

Ray Anderson writes about his company’s experience: [3]

“Here’s the thing: Sustainability has given my company a competitive edge in more ways than one. It has proven to be the most powerful marketplace differentiator I have known in my long career. Our costs are down, our profits are up, and are products are the best they have ever been. It has rewarded us with more positive visibility and goodwill among our customers than the slickest, most expensive advertising or marketing campaign could possibly have generated. And a strong environmental ethic has no equal for attracting and motivating good people, galvanizing them around a shared higher purpose, and giving them a powerful reason to join and stay.”

So, Environmentalism — actions to protect the natural world — is a necessary condition for assuring humanity’s future. Humanity, however, also demands continued economic development. For humanity to be sustainable — to persist indefinitely — economic development cannot continue to be at the expense of the natural world. Paul Hawken is right: the resolution depends on industry. However, “industry” is a collective term. The decision to pursue Sustainability lies with each individual unit of production. Remarkably, manufacturers that choose to pursue Sustainability find significant competitive advantages. The natural world wins — humanity wins — sustainable manufacturers win.

Chuck - FranceJera Sustainable Development exists as a resource for those that choose to pursue Sustainability.

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … C.H.

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on weekly.

[1] For more on this, see Double Take on the Triple Bottom Line, this blog: http://blog.jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2012/10/03/double-take-on-the-triple-bottom-line/

[2] From Ray Anderson, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, St Martin’s Press (2009), page 14, citing Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Nature, Harper Business (1993, revised 2010).

[3] Ray Anderson, op cit, page 5.