Magazine article People & Strategy

Sustainability Rests in the System, Not the Product

Magazine article People & Strategy

Sustainability Rests in the System, Not the Product

Article excerpt

Daniel Goleman is on-target in suggesting that new skills will be critical for companies in the sustainability game. HR needs to be especially careful when selecting and supporting personnel tasked to lead efforts in this domain. Further, what have been conventional performance criteria will need to be expanded to include factors related to sustainability. This is where, I believe, Goleman goes astray.

The first part of his article describes emerging sustainability indices and suggests that shoppers will be able to use them to select items that best satisfy their intentions toward sustainability. The story is not quite so simple and direct. Unlike price, which can be easily played off against some set of satisfying factors, sustainability metrics cannot. Sustainability is not a single-valued function; rather, sustainability is a holistic property of a system. A system, like the economic or environmental system, exhibits sustainability when it produces desirable qualities, like flourishing or security, over long periods. Sustainability is the result of the interaction of many relationships, each of which may be understandable when looked at in isolation. But it is the intermeshing of these relationships that matters, and in all-important cases, the tangled web that emerges cannot be described by a set of abstractions, formulas or indices.

That is where the indices to which Goleman refers go astray. They make a valiant effort at capturing the impact of diverse factors on environmental sustainability, and to a lesser degree, social responsibility. Product life cycle assessment systems, like Earthster, have been used for nearly 25 years without much effect on the environment. Even if one combines hundreds of separate factors as is done in the GoodGuide system, the result cannot be correlated with any positive image of sustainability. …

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