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MIT Sloan Management Review

You Can't Manage Your Way to Sustainability

[This article is part of a series of interviews from the MIT Sloan Management Review published on It is adapted from "Flourishing Forever" an interview published by MIT Sloan Management Review in July 2009. The complete interview is available here. © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. All rights reserved. To read all of's interviews with MIT thought leaders, visit]

John R. Ehrenfeld, the author of Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture, and is the Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. He retired in 2000 as the Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, an interdisciplinary educational, research, and policy program.

And John Ehrenfeld says the current craze for going green is all wrong.

Let's start by talking about how you define sustainability and how your ideas differ from those of others.

I define sustainability as the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever. It's a definition about as far from the central notion of sustainable development as night is from day. But, to me, it represents a truer idea about what sustainability is all about. Flourishing, like many other desirable qualities, is an emergent property. It has no thing-like character. It's like health, or liberty, or freedom: It appears only when the whole system is functioning properly

Now, many people belittle this kind of notion, because in the world of business and management you find the mantra, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." But sustainability is not about managing and measuring. It's about getting there, and staying there.

Why isn't there a way to count what you're after?

It's the nature of emergent properties. The world is complex. It's the relationships between all the parts that count, not the parts themselves. If we don't get it right, we're just not going to see these qualities come forth.

Now, what people do measure are attempts to reduce the level of unsustainability. That's different, because unsustainability can be divvied up into little pieces.

Let's talk about the biggest implications for business in thinking about sustainability this way. What is going to drive businesses to pay attention?

In the book I talk about three critical problems that have arisen. The first is that we've lost consciousness of what it is to be human. We're "need" machines.

The second is we've forgotten our place within nature. So it's not surprising that, slowly, but surely, we have dominated nature -- to the point now where it's threatened as our life support system.

And the third critical problem, particularly interesting one to me is that modern technology makes acting responsibly problematic, because technology tends to hide the actor from the act in time and space. It changes our perceptions of the world we're in.

What opportunities should businesses see in these three problems?

Business as an institution is a very powerful force in both changing and maintaining culture. Societal cultural values infiltrate companies and drive them. But companies can voluntarily begin to change the way they do things to create a different set of beliefs. And when employees go home at night they take these beliefs home, so companies have an opportunity to be part of the agency for cultural change beyond embedding ideas in the stuff that goes out the front door.

Speak to me as an executive, a manager. What are the biggest things getting in the way of me acting on all this?

One is we don't know very much about how to design this kind of technology that talks. Another issue is that businesses can get too caught up in greening. Greening is the word of the moment.

In my experience it's hard to get the companies that are interested in sustainability to stay with it for the long pull. You find one or two people at a company who really know what they want, but they have limited power to inject it into the corporation.

If you could undertake any sustainability initiative, what would you like most to do?

Well, I don't think that you change people's minds from the top-down. Culture change is very, very hard. The subtitle of my book is "A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture." Because it is so hard, you have to sneak it in.

Having said that, I think the most powerful, immediate opportunity is to have world leaders start to tell the truth to their flocks. The key thing is to get people to think -- and I'm using that word carefully -- about where we're going. Not to promise anything, but to begin to tell them that the world is complex, and we simply can't do things the way we used to.

That would give companies a bigger window to start to do what they have to. I think that's the biggest thing that can happen to kick this off. And it's just a kickoff.

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