What is sustainability?
When I hear sustainability I immediately think about nature and how it is destroyed by us humans. I think about the environment, the planet we live on and the limited resources we have. I think about air pollution, deforestation, overfishing, meat consumption or fossil fuels.
But that is actually not the only side of sustainability. Sustainability means our ability to sustain, to continue. That definition is also applicable to us humans. We want to continue with our own lives as long as possible and in the healthiest way possible. The same is true for the friendships or networks we create, the organizations we work in or the society we live in. Our natural aim is to make them last as long as possible, in other words: sustainable.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, are we creating the most sustainable environments possible that do not decrease our ability to sustain a healthy state in the long term.
How is sustainability defined?
One of the earliest definitions was made in the Brundtland report by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development.
“Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – United Nations Commission on Environment and Development
The basic idea of that definition is noble. Every human being has needs that we want to satisfy. And by keeping a long term perspective, we take into account that after our lives have ended on this planet, there should be enough resources left so that our children or grandchildren can benefit their needs as well, without having to suffer.
At the same time this definition is so vague that it is difficult to point a finger to what it actually means for our daily individual decisions.
The Framework for strategic sustainable development
That is why researchers around Karl-Henrik Robèrt have come up with a framework that defines sustainability on a principle-based definition of reaching sustainability. The framework covers the ecological side, our planet, and the social system that exists on it. The advantage of a principle-based vision of a sustainable future is that it is clear what we are aiming for while being flexible about the way we reach that vision. This approach is called backcasting from principles. It takes into account that new technologies might be developed in the future that that could have an impact on our chosen strategy. It also considers the conditions and circumstances we currently face and that we need to take this as a basis for our next steps. This definition is specific enough to guide our day to day actions and allows taking joint efforts in different scenarios.
But let’s hear it from Chad Park, who is Chief Innovation Officer of The Natural Step Canada, an sister organization of the Natural Step founded by Karl-Henrik Robèrt.
Backcasting from principles
Göran Ingvar Broman and Karl-Henrik Robèrt formulate the purpose of their FSSD framework in their paper ‘A framework for strategic sustainable development’ as the following:
“It has been designed to give guidance on how any region, organization or project can [A] develop a vision framed by principles for social and ecological sustainability, [B] analyse and assess the current situation in relation to that vision and thus clarify the gap, [C] generate ideas for possible actions that could help to bridge the gap, and [D] prioritize such actions into a step-wise and economically attractive plan, thereby also supporting society’s transition towards social and ecological sustainability.”
The following funnel not only describes the four steps of the backcasting process, also known as the ABCD-process, which were described in the quote above. It also describes the exponential effect of our current unsustainable systematic actions, which will eventually lead to the destruction of our social system and our planet, if we do not take appropriate actions now. By implementing a future based on the success principles of sustainable development, we are able to stabilize the situation, which is shown as the cylinder part around the vision circle. The spreading of the funnel at the right end symbolizes that we are even in the position to improve our situation in the future through restorative actions.
What are the success principles of sustainability?
As these principles are the minimum requirements for a sustainable system they are phrased negatively, meaning that the planet or people are not systematically hindered at achieving them.
The ecological success principles of sustainability
First, we take a look at the three ecological principles as described in ‘A framework for strategic sustainable development’ by Broman and Robert:
In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing …
- … concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust.
This means limited extraction and safeguarding so that concentrations of lithospheric [the crust and mantle of the earth] substances do not increase systematically in the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil or other parts of nature; e.g. fossil carbon and metals;
- .… concentrations of substances produced by society.
This means conscious molecular design, limited production and safeguarding so that concentrations of societally produced molecules and nuclides do not increase systematically in the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil or other parts of nature; e.g. NOx and CFCs;
- … degradation by physical means.
This means that the area, thickness and quality of soils, the availability of fresh water, the biodiversity, and other aspects of biological productivity and resilience, are not systematically deteriorated by mismanagement, displacement or other forms of physical manipulation; e.g. over-harvesting of forests and over-fishing;
The social success principles of sustainability
In the video above the social principle is described as “people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.” That sounds very much like the vague definition of the United Nations stated earlier. The same thought must have crossed Merlina Missimer, who wrote her PhD thesis about “The social dimension of strategic sustainable development”. Her research concludes five success principles for the social aspect of sustainability. Here they are:
People are not subject to structural obstacles to …
- .… health.
This means that people are not exposed to social conditions that systematically undermine their possibilities to avoid injury and illness; physically, mentally or emotionally; e.g. dangerous working conditions or insufficient rest from work;
- .… influence.
This means that people are not systematically hindered from participating in shaping the social systems they are part of; e.g. by suppression of free speech or neglect of opinions;
- .… competence.
This means that people are not systematically hindered from learning and developing competence individually and together; e.g. by obstacles for education or insufficient possibilities for personal development;
- … impartiality.
This means that people are not systematically exposed to partial treatment; e.g. by discrimination or unfair selection to job positions;
- .… meaning-making.
This means that people are not systematically hindered from creating individual meaning and co-creating common meaning; e.g. by suppression of cultural expression or obstacles to co-creation of purposeful conditions.
Taking together the ecological and social side of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development the following picture with eight success principles emerges:
What is a sustainable system?
In her research Merlina Missimer investigates what is it that makes a system sustainable. She comes up with five aspects that need to be present and sustained in complex adaptive systems, or in other words organizations or society. The five aspects are:
- Common meaning
- Capacity for learning
- And capacity for self-organization
They provide the foundation for the social success principles, but they underline what for example a sustainable organization needs. It is quite self-explaining that we need to trust the people we work with and do business to feel comfortable. Common meaning could mean that an organization has a clear purpose that every employee identifies with. Diversity strengthens the resilience of an organization and could be expressed by the representation of different cultures, ages, genders, or skills. The capacity for learning is explained by the drive we humans have for curiosity and self-development and that should not be limited within a company. The last point covers that we humans are able to self-organize and therefore employees should be empowered to make autonomous decisions.
Is it beneficial for an organization to act on sustainability?
If we are able to overlook the moral and ethical considerations that we have by destroying the planet we live on and harming other people, there is even a profitable aspect to sustainability.
Broman and Robèrt describe this as the “potential self-benefit of proactivity” and in their paper they directly address the leaders of our time. Keep in mind the above described funnel while reading their message:
“Actors who contribute relatively more than others to unsustainability run relatively higher risks of hitting the wall of the funnel, over and above those attributed to the destruction of our global habitat that will affect us all in the end. The funnel wall will be experienced as, sometimes abrupt, changes in legislation, regulation and tax, resource availability and resource costs, insurance and credit costs, waste management costs, and, not the least, changes in customer and employee preferences and risks of losing out to competitors that navigate the paradigm shift more skillfully. It is wiser to invest in developments towards the opening of the funnel than into its wall.
The business case of sustainability is not only about traditional risk and cost reductions but also about understanding the inevitable dynamics of the funnel and how an increasingly sustainability driven market will evolve as a result the funnel. Intuitively, the main self-benefit from doing good for the whole system probably comes from capturing of innovation opportunities, from exploration of new markets and from winning of new market shares, in addition to reducing direct risks and costs.
Each actor needs to strike a balance. Being too proactive implies risks of not getting sufficiently high or timely returns on investment. On the other hand, simply reacting to changes in legislation, regulation and changes of tax also imply great economic risks, linked to falling behind competitors. There is a business case of sustainability to some degree for most actors, regardless of what other actors do. What other actors do only influences the pace of the change. A particularly interesting aspect is that proactive companies might actually turn to politicians and ask for harsher legislation, regulation or tax, with the purpose of increasing the general pace of change and at the same time gain relative advantages for themselves. For example, if a company has already developed pilot products that are well ahead of the current legislation and regulation or less sensitive to increased tax (e.g. on fossil fuels), and that can be scaled up to replace a major part of their product range, they might assess that harsher legislation, regulation or tax will hit their competitors harder than themselves.
Several FSSD-knowledgeable leaders have acted on this possibility vis-a-vis Swedish and European politicians. Examples include the top managements at OK Petroleum and the Volvo Group asking the Swedish government for higher tax on fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions, respectively, Electrolux asking the Swedish government for a ban on heavy metals in batteries, and IKEA lobbying in the European Union for a more demanding regulation of chemicals (REACH).”
There is an obligation for every one of us to act sustainable on the ecological as well as on the social aspect of sustainability.
Broman, G.I., Robèrt, K.-H., (2017). A framework for strategic sustainable development. Journal of Cleaner Production 140 p.17-31.
Missimer, M., Robèrt, K.-H., Broman, G.I., (2015a). A strategic approach to social sustainability part 1: exploring the social system. J. Clean. Prod. 140 (Part-1), p. 32-41.
Missimer, M., Robèrt, K.-H., Broman, G.I., (2015b). A strategic approach to social sustainability part 2: a principle-based definition. J. Clean. Prod. 140 (Part-1), p. 42-52.