Sustainability by the Numbers

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The Greener by Design conference has produced a stream of reportable articles. I plan to post my thoughts on these from time to time. Today, a presentation by Rand Waddoups, senior director of business strategy and sustainability at Wal-Mart popped up to the toop of the pile. Reported by Amie Vaccaro in a post titled, "A Metrics Driven Approach to Sustainable Business," Waddoups described a system Wal-Mart is using to drive their whole system toward "sustainability."

[Waddoups] described Wal-Mart's four part journey to sustainability, beginning with consensus building around need for sustainability, moving into an evangelist phase, and then to a clear recognition of the business case of sustainability. The fourth step, where they are headed today, is the ability to measure and track progress with sustainability metrics. They've found that suppliers that provide poor products are often also mistreating their employees, and cheating when it comes to factory compliance. So holding suppliers to a higher standard is good for business.

I put sustainability in quotes because what he and others at this conference mean by sustainability and what I do are entirely different things. Waddoups and virtually all of the speakers at this and other similar conferences suffer from what Alfred North Whitehead called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." They all speak about sustainability as if it were some object that can be realized by applying standard management practices, specifically by pursuing a set of metrics that, if put into proper play, will bring sustainability forth. Sorry, but this is not going to happen.

As Waddoups did say, metrics can identify serious problems and force "higher standards" on suppliers. All this can ever do is to make the world less bad or in this conversation, less unsustainable. This end is certainly a good and important result, but has little to do with producing sustainability. Believing that metrics will bring us sustainability is an error; the best metrics can do is buy us time to learn how to listen to the other story.

Sustainability is a system property. All the good efforts of Wal-Mart or any other firm cannot bring it about unless the whole global system is working right. If the current kinds and quantitiy of consumption is a primary cause of unsustainability (I believe that it is), then there is little that Wal-Mart can do for sustainability unless it fundamentally changes its business model. Incremental improvements along a continuous scale will be eventually overtaken by the incremental, but steady, growth our present economic model demands.

Please do not read this as a screed against Wal-Mart. They are doing what the same system we want to produce sustainability is telling them to do. That's our dilemma. We listen to two conflicting messages, but the one that responds to the immediate world always trumps the one that murmurs about some unclear future. That's seems to be the way we have been wired since our ancestors learned to avoid the perils of primitive life. Other parts of the brain can be trained to react to subtle threats, but only if we explicitly work to turn them on. Sustainability by Design offers some ways to do just that.

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