A 6-Ingredient Recipe for Sustainability

A 6-Ingredient Recipe for Sustainability

I spoke recently about strategic sustainability to members of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a 350-company business association here in the heart of innovation.

During the Q&A period, one of the sustainability directors attending asked for a short recipe of what companies should be thinking and doing.

It's telling that even among this group of dedicated sustainability leaders at companies dedicated to sustainability, there are still questions about just how they should proceed. In the interest of giving everyone a leg up, below is my six-ingredient recipe:

  1. Think about "What Business Are You Really In?" What's the real value proposition you're offering to your customers? Not the physical artifact you're in the habit of producing, but the actual benefit they gain from using it. That's the business you're really in; now think about how you can deliver that benefit with less footprint, less product -- or no product at all.
  2. Think big. Think bold. When problems seem gigantic, the opportunities are gigantic too. The challenge we face -- nothing less than transforming the economy of our entire planet in one generation. -- is huge. And it offers once-a-century economic opportunities as well. We need to reinvent the way we do everything -- energy, transport, buildings... Think about it: one man, Steve Jobs, transformed four industries (computers, movies, music, telecommunications) in the last 20 years. What if you took on just one?
  3. Be realistic. Not in the spirit-limiting, imagination-sapping way most people mean, but simply this way: Pay attention to physical reality -- and to what's required for real solutions, not band-aids. Heed the laws of nature, distilled from the nearly 4 billion years of open source R&D conducted for us by earth's living systems. You can't repeal them, and you can't break them; you can only break yourself against them. So you might as well go along with them.
  4. Everyone, Everything, Early. This aphorism from Bill Reed -- Engage Everyone, and consider Everything, as Early in the process in the design process as possible -- is key to what W. Ross Ashby called "requisite variety" some 60 years ago, and is in turn the key to effective integrative design> and to innovation that costs less, not more, than business as usual.
  5. Measure what matters -- including your carbon footprint, resource productivity and product-to-non-product ratio. And keep two sets of books -- again, not in the sense that some people mean, but in this sense: one set using standard accounting practices, and one incorporating full ecological accounting, as Puma recently did (and discovered a potential 25 percent hit to their EBITDA).
  6. Provide a clear line of sight that connects each person's actions with their impacts, and with the company's actions, impacts and goals. When people can see the impacts of their actions they experiment and learn, and do a much better job of managing themselves. The process: generative feedback. The result: more engagement, faster innovation, flatter hierarchies, more responsive organizations -- what Ernest Lowe gracefully dubbed "autonomy in a coherent whole" -- which invites another recipe -- this one for effective self-organization and self-management in a world moving far too fast for top down organizations to survive and thrive.

There are plenty of other recipes to learn on the path to sustainability. Stay tuned for the next entry in the cookbook!

Photo CC-licensed by Don LaVange.