Sustainability champions know that it can be challenging to convince businesses and governments that the triple bottom line will not only help them operate more efficiently, but that it will also help them conduct business in a way that makes more sense organizationally and is not too resource intensive. Within the boundaries of each business, however, this process can get so internally focused that the larger goal becomes diluted or is lost sight of.
And what is the larger goal? Put in simple terms, what we are really trying to think about is how to take up the right amount of space on the planet, not too much so as to cause too great an environmental impact, and not so little that we are squeezed out by competition. Put in biological terms, it’s really about carrying capacity and the limits of our biosphere.
In order to be able to talk about the larger issues, we have to get people’s heads outside (maybe even literally) of business as usual. And we have to get them thinking in terms of biological systems.
The challenge of this mental reframing is compounded by the larger cultures in which we work. Energy intensive countries have created entirely new energy parameters within which people operate on a daily basis. For example, if you are gainfully employed and live in a region of drought in a G6 country, you probably worry more about your lawn and your dirty car than your survival.
We’ve also developed underlying cultural beliefs around resource use, as if the ability and privilege to exploit available resources is the measurement of a civilization’s “advancement.” Given this psychological setup, it’s no wonder that we continue to witness backlash to environmental legislation in the US and a rise in equating individual liberty with the right to unchecked energy consumption.
As a strategy for developing new ways of thinking about sustainability within companies, I would suggest finding ways to support local initiatives in food production, community development, and environmental protection. These can be structured as volunteer projects, as well as gifting programs for local non-profits that focus on local food and water sheds.
The more we can get people to focus on their local and immediate environments, the more they will feel grounded in their communities. On an individual level, this will encourage behavioral changes, including how people spend their money, and ultimately, how resource intensive they are in their consumption. On an organizational level, it will aid the shift to a culture where systems thinking is the norm, opening mental doors to new sustainability initiatives, and sending deeper organizational roots into the local community and environment.
Laurie “Duck” Caldwell is a 2013 MBA candidate at Antioch University New England. She is also the Executive Director of The Boston Area Gleaners, a non-profit organization that enlists the harvesting labor of local volunteers to glean farm fields of excess crops, which is then delivered to local emergency food providers, such as food pantries and soup kitchens.