November 2008 Archives

Meals Are More Than Eating


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Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays that celebrates the family and looks inward instead of honoring a public event or individual. As is now our custom for the last few years, we traveled to DC to be with my daughter and family, and enjoyed a sumptuous holiday dinner with friends. Our two families shared the preparations as we have done for the lat few years. A high point was to her everyone’s thoughts about the occasion. One theme ran through everyone’s comments: thankfulness for being together again.

That presence and awareness is tied to the meal in a non-trivial way. Food preparation has been a family or clannish activity since humans arrived on the Earth. It was and is more than simply providing sustenance to the body, but also is an expression of care for the people involved. When meals becomes a commodity delivered in frozen food boxes, or served up at a fast food restaurant, the caring aspect is lost. Marcella Hazan, long respected for her cookbooks on food of the Mediterranean region, echoes these thoughts in a column in the New York Times.

The food Americans eat that is made fresh at home by someone who is close to them is shrinking compared with food consumed at restaurants or prepared outside. And while eating out or taking in may save us time or bring us enjoyment, I would argue that it deprives us of something important.

I am my family’s cook. It is the food prepared and shared at home that, for more than 50 years, has provided a solid center for our lives. In the context of the values that cement human relations, the clamor of restaurants and the facelessness of takeout are no match for what the well-laid family table has to offer. A restaurant will never strengthen familial bonds.

Which is why, as we come together over the holidays, we should take a moment to think about how we might become cooks again. We could even begin, in these financially straitened times, by replacing store-bought presents with meals cooked at home.

After all, what experience of food can compare with eating something good made by someone you can hug? Like other forms of human affection, cooking delivers its truest and most enduring gifts when it is savored in intimacy — prepared not by a chef but by a cook and with love.

Activities that raise consciousness of caring and that have largely disappeared from much of what we do is an important theme in Sustainability by Design. Sustainability depends on restoring our relationship to both nature and to our own species. The time it would take to make eating together an expression of care for one’s family would be time well spent. Shifting from “having” to “being” can only come to be via such meaningful experiences.

The End of Consumerism?? Not Yet

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News from the New York Times reporting on the "biggest" shopping day of the year.

A Wal-Mart employee in suburban New York died after he was trampled by a crush of shoppers who tore down the front doors and thronged into the store early Friday morning, turning the annual rite of post-Thanksgiving bargain hunting into a Hobbesian frenzy.

At 4:55 a.m., just five minutes before the doors were set to open, a crowd of 2,000 anxious shoppers started pushing, shoving and piling against the locked sliding glass doors of the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., Nassau County police said. . . .

People did not stop to help the employee as he lay on the ground, and they pushed against other Wal-Mart workers who were trying to aid Mr. Damour. The crowd kept running into the store even after the police arrived, jostling and pushing officers who were trying to perform CPR, the police said.

“They were like a stampede,” said Nassau Det. Lt. Michael Fleming. “Hundreds of people walked past him, over him or around him.”

Nuff said.

The End of Consumerism??


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The media abounds with prognostications that the rampant consumerism that has fueled the US and other economies has gone South and will not return for quite a while. Some economists celebrate this turn of events as an opportunity to bring more sense to the market. A senior manager at Morgan Stanley, ironically one of the many firms that have been implicated in ramping up levels of spending by inflating assets and reinforcing the belief that the bubble would never break, wrote that this deflation is a good thing because it will bring sense back to the consumer.

It’s game over for the American consumer. Inflation-adjusted personal consumption expenditures are on track for rare back-to-back quarterly declines in the second half of 2008 at a 3.5 percent average annual rate. There are only four other instances since 1950 when real consumer demand has fallen for two quarters in a row. This is the first occasion when declines in both quarters will have exceeded 3 percent. The current consumption plunge is without precedent in the modern era.

The good news is that lines should be short for today’s “first shopping day” of the holiday season. The bad news is more daunting: rising unemployment, weakening incomes, falling home values, a declining stock market, record household debt and a horrific credit crunch. But there is a deeper, potentially positive, meaning to all this: Consumers are now abandoning the asset-dependent spending and saving strategies they embraced during the bubbles of the past dozen years and moving back to more prudent income-based lifestyles… This is a painful but necessary adjustment.

The real question is, however, “How real is this prudence?” Is it driven by some sort of attitudinal change or simply by the reality that the money is not there and that the family coffers will take some time to fill up again? My sense is that the cultural drivers that combined with the capability to buy more and more goods are still firmly rooted. People still hold deep beliefs that they are defined by what they own. Self-esteem will likely decline, and we will see evidence in the shape of family breakdowns and other social dysfunctions. Until the strongly individualistic core of American culture shifts to recognize the important of community and interpersonal ties, the prudence is likely to evaporate very quickly. Without an effort to use this climactic event to move out of the “having” mode to the “being” mode of human existence, the opportunity for change will quickly pass by.

Missing the Point


Excitement over a finding that more people will buy "greener" presents this holiday season misses the important point. It's consumption, itself, that is the problem. I found several articles recently that point to more enlightened shopping this year. Here's an example:

A study of Americans done by the retailer Plow & Hearth, however, shows that some consumers - green consumers - are willing to spend a little more to buy a product that is environmentally friendly. According to an article on Portland Business Journal the study found that About two-thirds of those going green this year say they are willing to spend between 10 percent and 25 percent more to by ecofriendly holiday green gifts.

So what can we conclude from this? . . . there’s some good news here. Even in these tough economic times, many people are still seeing the importance of making sure that their purchases leave a lighter impact on the earth. They also understand that their eco-friendly purchases may have to come at a higher price tag and are willing to pay extra up to a certain extent.

Giving gifts is a well-established means to show respect and caring for others. Maybe it really is "the thought that counts," not the object. Material gifts are supposed to signify a relationship wherein the parties are the real gifts to each other. Sustainability depends on rediscovering that it is the caring and the relationship that counts, not the gifts. And remember that gift giving at this season has become a duty to make sure that all the retailers make it into the next year, especially this particular season.

Plus ça Change, Plus C'est la Même Chose


This old French saying is an elegant way of referring to the shifting-the-burden behavior so common in individuals and organizations. By continuing to follow familiar superficial patterns of action aimed at relieving symptomatic problems, attention is diverted away from the underlying causes, and things continue to show up in the same old ways.

George Packer published this interesting item yesterday. Try to read it without diverting your eyes to the last paragraph.

The huge organism of Detroit, for all its Middle Western vigor, is clogged with dead tissue now. You can see here, as it is impossible to do in a more varied and complex city, the whole structure of an industrial society; almost everybody who lives in Detroit is dependent on the motor industry and in more or less obvious relation to everybody else who lives here. When the industry is crippled, everybody is hit. “The cylinder-head has cracked!” says one official of a large motor company, “and when the cylinder-head is cracked, you have to get a new car. The system has broken down!” But the minds of motor company officials have not as yet been fertile in ideas for new systems.

From a recent Wall Street Journal or New York Times? No, this was written by Edmund Wilson in 1958.

What Counts Can't Be Counted


iStock_scales.jpgSustainability is a property of the whole planetary system. It should not be confused with the performance of discrete parts of the system, for example, single firms. That's why I am careful to define sustainability as flourishing, an emergent property of the whole, complex system, including all forms of life, human and otherwise. And like all such properties, sustainability cannot be reduced to a single or even a set of metrics.

To do so is to risk confusing progress in reducing the burden on the world with advances toward flourishing. Worse, better numbers gives the impression that we are doing just fine and can go back to the same habits that brought us unsustainability in the first place.

Emma Stewart writing in "Leading Green," the blog of the Harvard Business Press, reinforces the conventional wisdom about sustainability metrics.

So now the challenge is shifting from metric availability to metric suitability.

First, in streamlining metrics, practicality should reign supreme. New indicators, like all other management techniques, must pass the test of cost-effectiveness. This means that a certain level of inaccuracy may be optimal and only issues material to the company should be covered. This will also save you from unwieldy amounts of data collection and drawn out consensus building processes. . . .

Guidance for the final step of refinement stems from the projected use of the information. A good place to start is to consider the heaviest, and most demanding, users of the data. Business unit managers and environmental NGOs will likely want to see both absolute and intensity metrics, while line managers will benefit more from intensity metrics in order to align employee ambitions with those of the company. Investors and rating agencies, from those focused on sustainability like INCR or SAM, to more conventional groups, will be most concerned with how sustainability performance affects risk management and profitability. Consumers will be concerned with different indicators, and to varying degrees, so require segmentation by the Marketing and Sales departments. Academia and government agencies may be interested in the overall impacts of corporate activity, so aggregated data is enough for them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, ". . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." So is it in the sustainability game. We cannot ignore the contributions of individual entities to the threatened world, but, at the same time, we have to keep an eye on the whole system. We cannot allow historic, often misplaced confidence in numbers lull all the interested parties Stewart mentions and more into forgetting to seek the uncountable qualities that constitute sustainability.

Pot Pourri 11/23/2008

This is the second week for this feature. I will repeat the caveat from the first collection. Sustainability is not a single, tightly constrained idea. So this posting will include items about sustainability, per se; greening; complexity; culture change; and others. Please email me or leave a comment if you have other topics that you think should be included under the broad theme of sustainability. But remember I don't write about sustainability in the same way as the mainstream media does.

Giant Technological Band-Aids

A World Changing article points to the dangers of assuming that complex systemic problems are amenable to technological fixes, even very large ones. The use of geo-engineering, the intentional modification of the Earth in Britain, is viewed with skepticism by the government.
UK climate minister Joan Ruddock is wary of reliance on radical technology that could be used by some as an excuse to avoid meeting targets to reduce carbon emissions. . . The remarks by Joan Ruddock, a minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, appear to be a thinly veiled dig at the Bush administration, whose delegation attempted to insert a section into last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on developing technology to block sunlight and cool the planet. The proposed text referred to it as an "important insurance" against the impacts of climate change. Speaking to MPs on the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills select committee, Ruddock was defending the government's unwillingness to fund research into so-called geoengineering - large-scale, untested interventions that either soak up carbon dioxide or prevent sunlight warming the planet
One reason for opposition is the shifting of responsibility from consumers and producers to scientists and engineers. I point out in my book that this is a characteristic of all forms of technology. Although unmentioned, this British position implicitly invokes the precautionary principle, deferring action where the unforeseen consequences can be monumental.

The Case for Technological Fixes

The above item links to an article in the Guardian arguing the polar opposite viewpoint.
Political inaction on global warming has become so dire that nations must now consider extreme technical solutions - such as blocking out the sun - to address catastrophic temperature rises, scientists from around the world warn today. The experts say a reluctance "at virtually all levels" to address soaring greenhouse gas emissions means carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are on track to pass 650 parts-per-million (ppm), which could bring an average global temperature rise of 4C. They call for more research on geo-engineering options to cool the Earth, such as dumping massive quantities of iron into oceans to boost plankton growth, and seeding artificial clouds over oceans to reflect sunlight back into space.
This post and the one immediately above illustrate a critical feature of complex systems. There is no single cause for failure and no single route to remedy. Political leadership may be weak because they have yet to hear their public clamor for change. The citizenry may be quiescent out of unawareness and skepticism about what the experts say and debate about. And so on.

A Bit of Technological Progress

GreenerBuildings announces the publication of the first report about green buildings with performance data about results achieved.
Green buildings have saved the U.S. billions of gallons of water and enough energy to avoid the equivalent of burning of 1.3 million tons of coal for electricity since the development of the LEED standards. In the process, these high-performance buildings have produced millions of dollars in employee productivity gains, avoided thousands of tons of soil erosion, and created a multibillion dollar market for the green building materials used in their construction.…
"Our findings are both encouraging and cautionary," Watson said as part of the report's release. "Overall, we believe that LEED buildings are making a major impact in reducing the overall environmental footprint of individual structures. However, significant additional progress is possible and indeed necessary on both the individual building level and in terms of market penetration if LEED is to contribute in meaningful way to reducing the environmental footprint of buildings in the U.S. and worldwide."

"What Makes a Company Sustainable?"

The header for this item is the headline for an article in thedailygreen. The example discussed is the clothing company, "Me to We: [Responsible Style]," Their website describes the company as
a new social enterprise that is committed to providing ethically manufactured, quality apparel for the socially-conscious consumer. Our product line is domestically produced, sweatshop-free and made using certified organic cotton and bamboo.
Me to We: [Responsible Style] is about bringing you products that positively affect our world. Even small things—like buying a T-shirt—can have a major impact. Our social enterprise is centered around the Me to We philosophy, which is about improving our lives and our world by reaching out to others. It involves focusing less on “Me” and more on “We”—our communities, our nation and our world. Me to We: [Responsible Style] evolved from this worldwide movement and philosophy. In a time of growing social awareness, consumers want to wear clothing that reflects their values. By using certified organic fair trade cotton, we ensure that you get the best, highest quality products and that farmers, producers and manufacturers all receive a fair wage in the supply chain. Our product line is ethical, flexible and stylish. Our comfortable designs are for everyone who wants to sport responsible styles, from individuals to entire schools, charities and businesses. To find out more about Me to We please visit
Much as I applaud any company for seeking to minimize its environmental impact and contribute to the social good, I cannot see any link to sustainability. The words "[Responsible Style]" seem to me to be an empty slogan; only people can be responsible. Like the notion of geo-engineering in the first post above, what Me to We does risks fulfilling their customers' sense of obligation to make the world a better place and leave them complacent about what really is needed from them.

The Financial Crisis, Continued

I have already pointed out that the financial crisis offers an opportunity to rethink what we mean by sustainability and to adopt some new ways to think about our complex world. Andrew Winston, writing in the HBR Leading Green blog, points to a more direct consequence, the need to be efficient.
Being far more efficient and effective with resources remains one of the main pillars of going green. As Dave Steiner, CEO of Fortune 200 company Waste Management, said recently, "When things are this tight, people see that it's about saving jobs and money. There's no better time to take action." This instinct to dive in head first runs counter to the visceral need to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. But as in most recessions, the companies that have the means to invest in smart ways during down times rebound the fastest when the economy turns around.
He adds a note about the opportunity to use the uncertainty facing consumers to introduce new products and services.
A second pillar of green business - using the environmental lens to create new ways to design, manufacture, and provide goods and services that use drastically less resources - still generates lasting value. A sustainability focus helps companies provide customers with better products and to some extent a better life. Is there a better time for product and service innovation than when consumers and business customers are stretched thin? What business wouldn't want to create a more profitable and innovative enterprise, all while building stronger relationships with customers, employees, communities and even shareholders?
The challenge for companies and others is to do all of these things: become more resource efficient, offer new "greener" products, but also stop and reflect at your part in creating the mess in the first place.

Sustainable Capitalism or Capitalism for Sustainability?

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Today, following the momentous election of yesterday, the WSJ published an op-ed piece by Al Gore and David Blood, identified by their roles in their investment management firm, Generation Investment Management. The last few paragraphs carries the main message.

Sustainability and long-term value creation are closely linked. Business and markets cannot operate in isolation from society or the environment.

Today, the sustainability challenges the planet faces are extraordinary and completely unprecedented. Business and the capital markets are best positioned to address these issues. And there are clearly higher expectations for businesses, and more serious consequences for running afoul of the boundaries of corporate responsibility. We need to return to first principles. We need a more long-term and responsible form of capitalism. We must develop sustainable capitalism.

They are absolutely correct in pointing to the critical linkages between “businesses and markets and society and the environment.” But as long as we start from the fundamental concept of a world apart and separate from us, we are inexorably drawn towards a world-view that ignores the interconnectedness.

They are right on with a call for more responsibility and a long-term outlook. But they offer no suggestions as to how to exchange these values for exactly the opposite set that has gotten us into this trouble. And the phrasing of sustainable capitalism is identical with sustainable development. The focus is on the noun, and suggests that sustainability can be attained simply by tinkering with either capitalism or development.

Without arguing against capitalism, we need to design a new form of capitalism that starts with a vision of sustainability, far beyond replacing dirty, finite energy resources with renewable, clean technology. This suggests that we must go beyond criticizing cultural issues like responsibility or short-sightedness, and get serious about restructuring the capitalist political economy to reflect exactly what Robert Kennedy was talking about, as quoted in the article.

Forty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy reminded Americans that the Dow Jones Industrial Average and Gross National Product measure neither our national spirit nor our national achievement. Both metrics fail to consider the integrity of our environment, the health of our families and the quality of our education. As he put it, “the Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Investment in innovation is an essential part of turning back the tide of unsustainability. But unless we focus also on the innovation of a new set of beliefs and values as well as of technology, we are going to find the search for sustainability will lead us down many blind alleys.

Citizen Renaissance

I just "stumbled!" upon a remarkable website, offering an opportunity to contribute to a book entitled, Citizen Renaissance. The basic idea is that those who are now consumers will become citizens in the future. One of the co-authors, Robert Phillips, is the head of Edelmann, UK, a branch of the world's largest independent PR firm. I found his short essay, The Rise and Fall of the C Word, compelling. Although his solution to the unsustainable consequences of consumerism is different from mine, it adds another path to follow in the quest toward sustainability. Here are a few keys pieces from his essay.I encourage all the readers to read it in full. It's language comes from the world of advertising and communication, but it's message is clear to any concerned citizen.
The future of PR belongs to the Citizen. The Consumer Age is coming to an end. Corporate Reputation and Brand Marketing are converging. In tomorrow’s world, constructive dialogue, engagement and a new tripartite contract between Citizens, Businesses and Government will drive the Communications agenda... There is a free radical somewhere deep within me that believes we are facing the end of consumerism as we know it. The global financial meltdown of recent weeks has served as a timely reminder that the death of Capitalism may be upon us also. There are real lessons to be learned from recent events: consider the inconsistencies and the lack of responsible regulation in the financial sector over the past decade - and think through the implications this may have if Governments and Citizens fail to actively intervene on an environmental level, to properly safeguard our planetary future.

Detroit May Live After All


Don't give up yet, GM and Ford. SUV's may make a come back after all. Americans' memories are very short and there is nothing like $2.00 gas to make them forget the pain of the last several months and let them return to their addictive habits. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson points to a New York Times headline, "Drivers Take to the Road Again as Gas Prices Fall."

But our addiction to automobiles, a huge source of greenhouse gases, is just part of the problem of unsustainability. As I write in Sustainability by Design, it is a much deeper addiction driven by cultural beliefs and values buried deep in our collective mindset that threatens the globe. Addiction cannot be overcome simply by taking away the drug, gasoline in this case. Unless something else is put in the place of the addictive substance, the old habits will come back sooner or later.

The headline for Jackson's op-ed piece is, "Curse of the falling gas process." Sooner or later, the laws of supply and demand will push gas prices back up. When is not certain. Drilling for more can postpone the certainty of higher cost of petroleum only for a short time if at all. In the meantime, our mindset will lull us into complacency and we will forget how precarious our situation really is. The economics of lower prices will remove incentives to find alternate sources as we stop feeling so much pain at the pump.

It takes constant work to cure an addiction. Drying out is painful, but, if successful, can restore health to the body. In this case it is the Planet's health at stake. Unsustainability is an unintended consequence of our collective addiction to beliefs like: humans are need machines and must consume, not only gasoline, but all sorts of commodified goods to achieve happiness. Think of what might happen if we got off this notion that our well-being equated to what we owned, and found, instead, that what really matters is caring, not needing. The way it works now is that we need the Planet to provide the stuff for all our toys and tools and to receive all the crap we throw away. What might happen if we started to care for this same Planet?