August 2009 Archives

Will Consumption Bounce Back?


Dot Earth, the NYTimes environmental blog, has published a series of posts asking whether the recession-induced drop in consumption can be maintained as we climb out of the hole we dug for ourselves. Three successive posts, featuring a Nobel prize winning economist, Kenneth Arrow, an iconoclastic economist, Herman Daly, and an MIT systems dynamicist, John Sterman, leave this question largely unanswered.

Arrow gives the standard economist's response, that growth is good and the current increase in savings will provide the capital to enable future growth without mucking up the world. Daly, who has championed a steady-state economic model that recognizes the connection of the abstraction that is the economists' model of economy to the finite real world of resources, said, in response to Revkin's (the blogger) questions:

When we “grow up” the first thing to do is to stop further growth, to become a mature steady state in physical dimensions, and then concentrate on qualitative development and maintenance: knowledge, wisdom, justice, the noosphere, etc. Arrested development in the adolescent growth phase leads to giantism, obesity, overpopulation, resource wars, and massive die-offs.

Sterman, like Daly, understands that the limits of the Earth will sooner or later put a stop to continued growth. He likens our incessant demand for bigger and bigger or more and more to living on what he called a "hedonic treadmill." And like Daly, he points to the need for reductions and structural change.

[Reducing m]aterial consumption is critical to easing down below these limits and building a more sustainable society. And there’s tremendous scope for greater efficiency and de-materialization in our consumption. Through technological and organizational change, supported by proper pricing (internalizing the currently externalized costs and environmental risks of material consumption and waste production), we can almost certainly provide for the needs of the projected population, at a good standard of living. But of course that’s not enough. As long as the dominant ethos is the drive for more consumption per capita — ever greater accumulation and consumption of material goods, energy, etc., then no amount of efficiency will suffice.

None of the contributors to this interesting series speaks about how to go about changing consumption levels, except for standard economic measures like innovation and consequent efficiency increases or internalizing the real costs of unsustainability. They understand the cultural norms that drive people to strive for more money so that they can buy more things and so on and on. But they generally take those norms to be rooted in some sort of psychological feature of the modern human being. That leads to neutral or pessimistic estimates of how to go about changing these structure and the length of time it will take.

Sterman knows whatever is to be done "will take a lot of work to shift our lives from the self-defeating path we are on to a more satisfying, sustainable path." Arrow thinks things will right themselves sooner or later. Daly commented:

Will mainstream growth economists ever wake up? Maybe, maybe not. Keynes said, “We are capable of turning off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.”

As is so often the case, this whole conversation is being held in an uncritical voice assuming that the economic model of human behavior is inviolate. Unfortunately this model (and it is only a model) is self-defeating and has led to the very condition all these commenters are concerned about--excess consumption relative to the Earth's capacity to support it. Rather than fret over if and how long it will take for the economy to return to historic rates of expansion, it's time to focus on the cultural values and norms that drive modern economies and deliberately introduce alternatives that will bring satisfaction and happiness beyond what money can provide. I call this state, flourishing. I believe that we do know what are these alternate value and beliefs, but are, as a society, stuck in our addictive ways and lack the tools and leadership to break out.

At the same time the Times was running these blog posts asking about the possibility of reduced consumption, it ran a story in their Happy Days column all about the meaning of money. Written by Simon Critchley, a philosopher, the "money quote" (interesting, but ironic in this instance, term used to point to the highlight in an article) for me was:

As a learned philosopher once remarked, money is the pimp between need and object, making available all objects and objectifying all beings, especially human beings. In a society like ours, where money is the one true God, everything is for sale and everyone is a prostitute insofar as value can be ultimately determined in financial terms.

It's hard to believe that we really can change our ways, but I do indeed believe that we can and must.

Strange Synchronicity

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I don’t think what I write here has anything much to do with sustainability, but the coincidence is too strange to pass over without noting it. For all Apple Macintosh computer users, as I have been forever in computer time, yesterday, August 28, was the official publication of Apple’s latest operating system, OS10.6, known better by its nickname, Snow Leopard. I made sure my copy would arrive on this very first possible day. I have been planning to wait a few days to install it while I read all the reports pouring in from people who have gone ahead, as I suspect a number of my prized, but ancient, applications and other sundry programs will not work any longer. It’s calling to me from the package and I won’t be able to delay much longer.

But this is just preface to the real story. As I was browsing my RSS feeds, this one popped up. Dot Earth, a NYTimes environmental blog, showed a photo of a rare snow leopard, taken in Afghanistan. The story’s publication date is, yes, August 28. Snow leopards are designated as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. That will eventually be the same fate as the users of the previous Macintosh OS.

What’s the chance of these two events happening on the same day? And, while Apple is known to introduce its products with great fanfares and media spectacles, how did they ever pull this one off.

Photo courtesy of the World Conservation Society and the NYTimes.

Happiness (Continued)


I have been posting an entry about happiness periodically whenever I read something worthy of comment or have new thoughts about the subject. (Stealing a line from Paul Krugman, this post is wonkish.) Today’s blog entry was triggered about the front page essay in the Sunday Boston Globe’s Ideas section. The theme is that “[m]oney can improve your life, but not in the ways you think.”

The argument begins with data showing that money spent for other people is valued higher on a happiness scale than money spent on oneself. Psychologists now say about this apparent contradiction to the old saying that money doesn’t buy happiness that:

The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

The conclusion seems clear, but the language can be misleading. The researchers speak of “deep-seated psychological reasons.” It’s very important not to interpret this as saying that we are intrinsically wired to “value goods over experiences.” We may indeed be wired, but that wiring is the result of our socialization in a culture with very strong norms that transmit this value to us incessantly until our cognitive database stores this rule as a dominant response to opportunities to spend money.

Another theme that has emerged in similar research is that money spent on experiences - vacations or theater tickets or meals out - makes you happier than money spent on material goods. Leaf Van Boven, an associate psychology professor at the University of Colorado, and Thomas Gilovich, chair of the psychology department at Cornell University, have run surveys asking people about past purchases and how happy they made them.

“We generally found very consistent evidence that experiences made people happier than material possessions they had invested in,” says Van Boven.

Why? For one thing, Van Boven and Gilovich argue, experiences are inherently more social - when we vacation or eat out or go to the movies it’s usually with other people, and we’re liable also to relive the experience when we see those people again. And past experiences can work as a sort of social adhesive even with people who didn’t participate with us, providing stories and conversational fodder in a way that a new watch or speedboat rarely can.

Again, the data are very interesting, but the connection to psychology is tenuous. I believe the reason rests more in the idea of Being and has ontological, not psychological, roots. Since happiness is a part of the more extensive quality, flourishing, getting the understanding straight is very important. The Globe article refers to suggestions that would increase charitable giving and mentions other similar strategies for creating happiness by tilting spending away from selfish purchases. These are, unfortunately, little more than quick fixes that fail to address the underlying cause: the loss of our understanding of what it means to be a human being.

As I have written, I believe the deepest ontological structure of Being is built on care. The researchers noted the positive effects of expenditures on taking care of others and on experiences which are described as fundamentally “social,” that is, involving a caring relationship. The experience of Being is exactly the “ineffable” that replaces the mere satisfaction of some need. It is what flourishing is about. And further, the restoration of this consciousness is an essential part of creating sustainability.

A Third Way


A recent dialogue in the Guardian between Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot has garnered a lot of attention. Both agree that the present course of industrial societies is unsustainable, but disagree on what to do about it. I do not know much about either person. I am not a regular reader of the Guardian where Monbiot writes, nor have I read the work of Kingsnorth. But the dialogue stands on its own.

The argument weaves back and forth with each responding, in turn, to a statement made by the other. It is easy, but misleading, to summarize the positions in a few words as the headline writer has done.

Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse?

The collapse of civilisation will bring us a saner world, says Paul Kingsnorth. No, counters George Monbiot - we can't let billions perish

Their arguments are not quite so polarized. You need to read the whole column carefully to parse out their stories. I want to point to a few sentences of Kingsnorth that presents the argument I have used to frame my book, Sustainability by Design.

Rather than "do nothing" in response, I'd suggest we get some perspective on the root cause of this crisis - not human beings but the cultures within which they operate.

Civilisations live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humanity is separate from something called "nature", which is a "resource" for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us that we are in control. This craving for control underpins your approach. If we can just persaude the politicians to do A, B and C swiftly enough, then we will be saved. But what climate change shows us is that we are not in control, either of the biosphere or of the machine which is destroying it. Accepting that fact is our biggest challenge.

Kingsnorth suggests that perhaps the best course for the Planet is simply to let whatever happens happen because it will take a collapse and recovery to change the future trajectory. Obviously he believes that we are on a untenable course. Monbiot argues for doing whatever we can to avoid such a catastrophe.

This is why, despite everything, I fight on. I am not fighting to sustain economic growth. I am fighting to prevent both initial collapse and the repeated catastrophe that follows. However faint the hopes of engineering a soft landing - an ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy - might be, we must keep this possibility alive. Perhaps we are both in denial: I, because I think the fight is still worth having; you, because you think it isn't.

I do think Monbiot is in some kind of denial state. Contemplating some sort of soft landing at the hands of engineers and technocrats is exactly the wrong solution as it only postpones the reckoning at the cultural level. I have argued, in my book, for a third way, taking on the culture directly and working to replace the values and beliefs of unsustainability with a sustainability set. We do need some sort of technological buffer to prevent the collapse that Kingsforth postulates, but not as the "solution." Monbiot argues that an apocalyptic collapse would cost the lives of billions. It would also produce some unpredictable state of the world in which all of the societal structure that runs our present world would no longer work as we would like.

Sustainability by Design is Now Available in Paperback


The availability of the paperback makes its selection as a course reader more attractive. Consider using it this academic year to introduce the subject. There is still time to do this. If you are interested, contact the Yale University Press for a review copy.

Green Campuses, Brown Students


Green campuses were all over the news today. Maybe it’s because summer is coming to a close and going back to school is on our minds. The Princeton Review recently released its ratings for some 691 schools as part of its general guide to colleges. In their own press release they called the ratings: a measure of how environmentally friendly the institutions are on a scale of 60 to 99.

As I have written on numerous occasions, this way of talking should send a signal to the reader to be cautious in interpreting and accepting the results. Nothing is ever “environmentally friendly!” The ratings may be a good indication of the relative performance of the schools along a multiplicity of axes, but it should never, never be advertised as telling us anything about the real impact of the activities included in the ranking system. Here’s how they describe the ranking system:

The institutional survey for the rating included ten questions on everything from energy use, recycling, food, buildings, and transportation to academic offerings (availability of environmental studies degrees and courses) and action plans and goals concerning greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The has also published a similar list for 300 schools. Their ranking is based on a composite of the following categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building; student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities; shareholder engagement.

These ratings were summarized in the NYTimes which article had a last minute addition to yet another survey, done by the Sierra Club. They included 135 schools in their ranking, which was based on these following categories: efficiency, energy, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, and administration.

What’s missing in all of these rating systems? The omits any connection to the education the students are to get. The Sierra Club includes academics, but that category accounts for only a small percentage of the overall score. The Princeton Review appears to be more specific, but looks only at environmental offerings. If you haven’t guessed the answer already, it’s the complete lack of attention to the basic curriculum. What’s the point of an organic cafeteria with great recycling if the students have just come from Economics 101 where they learn how consumption drives growth, how more is always better, and how humans are just heartless maximizers? MBAs learn Michael Porter’s competitive strategy theories which are basically about how to capture ever larger segments of a market. The schools may be putting a green overlay on their activities, but they are still turning out brown students.

Unsustainability is not just a case of excessive consumption. That’s just the superficial cause. Students are the great change agents of the future. They are the Planet’s best chance for changing the underlying cultural beliefs and norms that create the problems, but not if they are imbued with the same ideas and norms that got us there. Remember Einstein’s admonition about not being about to solve problems by thinking the same way that created them. It’s relatively easy to green the campuses compared to change the curriculum. I do applaud the efforts being made. The students will be able to see that there are better ways to do things they have already become accustomed to. Then they will graduate and leave behind the green buildings and transparent endowments. Like addicts released from a rehab center, they will be plunged back into the culture with little capacity for critical thinking and few possibilities for practicing the alternate ways of being, thinking, and acting essential to sustainability.

You Can't Can Fool All the People . . .


Some time ago I picked Fiji Water as the Number 1 example of greenwashing from a list of the most egregious examples of 2008 prepared by the Greenwashing Brigade. Now more than half a year later, it shows up again in an exposé in Mother Jones, by Anna Lenzer.

Lenzer spends much of the article commenting on the dreadful state of the Fijian community and the dictatorial behavior of the current ruling junta. She contrasts this to the marketing line of Fiji Water Company LLC. If, as the article claims, this brand is so popular among the glitterati, including President Obama (shame, shame), many of whom trumpet their concerns for the social conditions in poorer parts of the world, it is an example of the difference between attitudes and actions so often found relative to environmental and social consumption. But that’s not what got me interested in writing more about FIJI Water (FIJI is capitalized in their trademark). It’s the claim that is it the top seller of imported bottled water in the United States.

Why, given concerns about global climate change and sustainability in general, would anyone not living on the tiny island of Fiji buy this product. Is it. perhaps, because the company advertises it as “Untouched by man?” That might be said of the contents, but the bottle itself is the result of human chemistry ingenuity and manufacturing prowess, and had to be handled numerous times on its long voyage from Fiji to its markets. Even the water itself had to fall from the sky at some point in time. Who’s to say it never encountered a human being.

Tom Lauria, Vice President of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, a trade company representing bottled water companies in America and abroad, responded by invitation to the publication of the article in Mother Jones. Lauria said:

The US bottled water market is truly consumer driven. This is, in large part, because people are making healthier beverage choices. The strength of this consumer self-generated demand is illustrated by the relatively modest amount spent on bottled water advertising. The 2007 bottled water advertising expenses totaled only $54.5 million. For comparison purposes, $637 million was spent on advertising carbonated soft drinks (over 10 times as much), and advertising expenses for beer totaled $1 billion (approximately 20 times that for bottled water).

I don’t believe that this market is “truly consumer driven,” in spite of the data on advertising budgets. For years, bottled waters were a specialty item, available in high end bars and restaurants. Their popularity grew along with brie and other symbolic goods, but not without advertising. Yes, there are instances where bottled water is better for your health than ordinary tap water, but generally not in the United States. It’s ironic that in places where bottled water is the only safe water to drink, the people would generally not be able to afford it.

Such products, given alternatives that are plentifully available, are simply among the most visible and egregious symbols of unsustainability. No amount of clever advertising can change that. FiJI Water by making a social, as well as an environmental, case for its business involves the full gamut of sustainability concerns. When the firm’s social behavior and relationships to the ruling junta was questioned, a company spokesperson replied. “They [Fijians] don’t have a ton of options for economic development,” Mooney told U.S. News & World Report, “but bottled water is one of them. When someone buys a bottle of Fiji, they’re buying prosperity for the country.” Without Fiji Water, he said, “Fiji is kind of screwed.”

It’s like saying buy a Coke, help the poor of Atlanta. And I have to add, with Fiji Water, the rest of us are screwed, as the world continues along its unsustainable path.

Linnaeus' Lost Art


I wonder how many people could identify Linnaeus, the father of our taxonomic system for classifying all the species on Earth. I even wonder how many would know the meaning of taxonomy. Are these questions merely examples of esoterica that mean little to daily life. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, writing in the NYTimes says no. Bemoaning the loss of interest in taxonomy, she writes:

Despite the field’s now blatant modernity, with practitioners using DNA sequences, sophisticated evolutionary theory and supercomputers to order and name all of life, jobs for taxonomists continue to be in steady decline. The natural history collections crucial to the work are closeted or tossed.

Outside taxonomy, no one is much up in arms about this, but perhaps we should be, because the ordering and naming of life is no esoteric science. The past few decades have seen a stream of studies that show that sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it.

More signs of our unconsciousness of our place in the world from the most unlikely places—the dusty cupboards of natural history collections. This is one of the three critical domains that suffer from the dominance of modern cultural beliefs and norms. The other two are lost consciousness of what it is to be human (our individual existence) and of other humans (our social existence). I argue in Sustainability by Design, that this loss is a fundamental cause of unsustainability. Simplifying my argument, if we have forgotten to care for the world, ourselves, and others, and left our responsibilities to the market and technocratic government, it is no surprise that the world is in such a sad state.

Using the example of “J.B.R.” a brain injured man who lost the ability to recognize living things, but could name inanimate objects, Yoon argues for the importance of being able to classify objects out there in the world.

How to tell the carrot from the cat — which to grate and which to pet? They are utterly lost, anchorless in a strange and confusing world. Because to order and name life is to have a sense of the world around, and, as a result, what one’s place is in it… We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life. We are willfully becoming poor J.B.R., losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world… Even when scads of insistent wildlife appear with a flourish right in front of us, and there is such life always — hawks migrating over the parking lot, great colorful moths banging up against the window at night — we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.

Her answer to this dangerous trend is quite simple. Just take time to pay attention to the world around you, giving names to what you see. “Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.” Can we unplug the earbuds, stop our thumbs, and glance away from the now omnipresent hand-held screen for just a moment? We better learn how quickly.

Greenwashing by Any Other Name . . .

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One of the best attended sessions at the Academy of Management meeting included Rand Waddoups, Senior Director of Business Strategy & Sustainability at Wal-Mart, speaking about their “Sustainability Index.” I could not go because I was a speaker in a competing session, but I heard a recap from some colleagues, One of the themes that Wal-Mart has been pushing is that this new index will reduce the effect of greenwashing.

Eventually, the goal of the index is to help the consumer navigate through misleading claims and be able see past greenwashing. Rand Waddoups, Senior Director of Business Strategy & Sustainability at Wal-Mart said recently said at a Greener by Design Conference, “We understand green-washing. [Our customer] doesn’t. She may not even be aware that it’s going on.” Waddoups also said about the Index, “Imagine one day when every product on the shelf has behind it enough information from a life-cycle-thinking perspective that allows us to be much, much more intelligent about how we’re buying,” he went on. “And really, in the end, eventually, what consumers should be.”

In a few recent posts, I have questioned this claim and see the proposal as a very subtle and potentially dangerous form of greenwashing. After re-reading these, I think I should make my argument clearer. The reasons turn on definitions of greenwashing. Here are a few gathered via a web search.

TerraChoice defines greenwash as:

Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) - verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Wikipedia’s definition is:

Greenwash (a portmanteau of green and whitewash) is a term used to describe the practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly, such as by presenting cost cuts as reductions in use of resources. It is a deceptive use of green PR or green marketing. The term green sheen has similarly been used to describe organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment.

The 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined greenwash as “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Finally Sourcewatch says greenwashing is:

The unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy.

The issue is not about the intentions of Wal-mart. It’s about how well they know what they are doing. Waddoup said in the above interview that, “Wal-Mart understands greenwashing.” In the light of these definitions, I would have to disagree at this point in time. Final judgment must wait until the index shows up in practice. Key words in these definitions are: unjustified appropriation, disinformation, disingenuously, and misleading. The definitions do not require some form of intentionality although the term is used primarily to expose intentional mischief. It is unintentional mischief that I worry about. Unintentional greenwashing is, perhaps, even more destructive to both the world and to consumers.

Product information needs to be both truthful and meaningful. Wal-Mart is prepared to spend a great deal of their own and their suppliers’ resources on developing a system that produces truthful information. Much, much easier said than done. Converting the answers to the questionnaire to a context that tells the consumer what the real impact of what they buy on the world is difficult and maybe impossible. Consumers can judge the results of things they buy relative to their own satisfaction and so can learn how to use product information, but they cannot when the information pertains to the environment or to the even more complex term, sustainability. The direct impacts of their actions are imperceptible to them. They can only believe they are doing the “right” thing.

In this case the “right thing” is to reduce the impact of their purchases on some relative basis, choosing the least impactful choice as measured by the Index or other label information. Is this a good idea? Certainly, if one overlooks another critical factor, the Index does not have any connection to what it names, “Sustainability.” And more, it legitimizes the purchase as doing good, disguising the more important connection to unsustainability—consumption. The index says something like, “It’s OK to buy this without having to think about the fundamental impact of your purchase on sustainability.” Consumption of goods and services, itself, is the proximate cause of environmental instability. Secondly, the economic system that is bringing you these items is the proximate cause of instability in the global social system.

I grant that the Wal-Mart system is only at its early stages. Wal-Mart staff admit “that this is a “ready-fire-aim” exercise — that the company wanted to get something out there, however imperfect, and improve it as it got real-world use.” The effort to extract and compile information from thousands of suppliers will focus players on the mechanics. If they fire before they aim, it may be too late to understand what they are doing and what emerged from the best of intentions may set back the cause of sustainability. It’s not enough to be truthful about a narrow aspect of consumption. The full meaning of every purchase at Wal-Mart’s and elsewhere needs to be exposed and transmitted to each and every consumer.

(Image courtesy of TerraChoice)

Social Entrepreneurs at the Academy of Management


This subject was highlighted in quite a few individual sessions. I listened to several panelists discuss social entrepreneur courses and their underlying premises. All those I heard spoke primarily about poverty alleviation in developing countries. Micro-financing, as popularized by Nobelist Mohammed Yunus, was one of the key themes. Two had students in their class create and operate a small fund in African countries. Others focused on providing some form of appropriate technology. One example was an irrigation pump to be driven by a bicycle. The idea came a cropper because the local population would not disassemble the bikes they relied on for transportation. The professor used this to point out the need to understand local customs and culture.

Without any judgment as to the importance or effort toward poverty alleviation or creating social justice, I want to point to another area of high social importance that does not fall into these two dominant categories but is also essential to create sustainability. This is the need for professionally trained entrepreneurs in developed countries to create and grow local economies and the internal organizations they require.

Reducing levels of consumption in affluent countries is an essential step in stabilizing the present planetary system. I hesitate always to use the grammatical form "sustainable X" because the adjective places the focus on the wrong place, but I make an exception in this case and refer to the objective as establishing a system for sustainable consumption. I don’t know what this means in quantitative terms, but there is no question that getting there will require radical changes in the economic definitions, accounting, and provisioning systems. Changing the metrics and definitions of basic economic entities like wealth or work will require acceptance from the established power structure in virtually every developed economy. Social entrepreneurs, other than community and political organizers, would seem to have limited roles here.

These limits do not apply in introducing alternative economic provisioning infrastructure, that is, the structures and procedures used to produce and deliver goods and services. Among several general concepts here is that of localization--the creation of local systems of production and distribution of goods like food and services like repairing. The book I have been reading and reporting on, The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption, has several examples. One is Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS). I have extracted the next few paragraphs from an academic paper by Briceno & Stagl.

In essence, LETS are systems of exchange among people in a community where members can offer any service or product they are able and willing to provide and purchase other goods and services offered in the community. There is a tendency to promote services over products as people develop ways to provide utility from tools and resources at their disposal. They operate at the community level and promote economic self-reliance. The main priorities of LETS are to create social cohesion.

The connection to sustainability transcends simply bringing levels of consumption under control and extends directly to the human dimension.

The fulfilled need most identified was that for ‘friendship’, intended to correspond to the need for affection. The examples given for the satisfaction of this need included the following comments: ‘meeting like-minded people who are environmentally aware’, ‘the benefits of this programme when one feels alienated in society’, and ‘the chance to interact and meet people I would not have met otherwise’. Hence, LETS have provided new outlets of economic activity that operate in a socially stimulating manner.

The tie between LETS and similar schemes to social entrepreneurialism is the importance of educating a stock of professionally trained operatives and managers that can start up such enterprises and, most importantly, keep them operating. The article I quote notes that many of the LETS fail to survive beyond the initial period when expectations and energy are high. Their conclusion, among other causes like inadequate funding, is that it is the lack of competency is a major contributor. What I heard about entrepreneurialism at the Academy of Management meeting follows the old story of the cobbler whose children run barefoot. We are looking to repair the ills of poverty and injustice far from home, but miss the problems right under our noses.

Sustainability at the Academy of Management

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The Best Business Schools& Admissions Secrets - Chioma Isiadinso_55.jpg

I am away from Maine for a few days to attend the meeting of the Academy of Management (AOM). For the uninitiated, the Academy is the Pantheon of business school faculties. The annual meeting is a big gathering, attracting over 7000 attendees. This year is special because the Academy has chosen sustainability as its theme. This in itself is a big deal as sustainability and its predecessor, environmental management, have long struggled to get out of the academic closet. One of my former students, Andy Hoffman, had a major role in headlining this subject and organizing the sessions for the entire audience. Most of the sessions are organized by the many specialty sections of the AOM.

I was one of a panel of speakers during the Friday program, introducing industrial ecology to an audience generally unfamiliar with the topic. This left me time during the day to attend a couple of other sessions sponsored by the Organizations and Natural Resources (ONE) section. So far, I am a bit disappointed. I had hoped to hear that this subject has moved into the mainstream of business schools or at least into the eddies at the edges. It is still working hard to get there, and those teaching in the area are struggling to get respect, as Rodney Dangerfield would have said, but change is coming. The recognition, even symbolically, by the Academy signals it. Many business schools are joining the greening of the campus programs at the universities where they are situated. The students are out in front pulling the faculties and programs with them.

Besides the institutional impediments that all sustainability efforts are facing, there is little consensus of what sustainability is about. This dissonance impedes efforts to collaborate and learn together. Just sitting in a couple of sessions with multiple speakers and listening to as many ways to talk about sustainability as the number of speakers (or even more as some used several conceptual senses) provides ample evidence.

It will take much time to make significant inroads. Sustainability means eco-efficiency and corporate social responsibility to most of the people here and back on the campuses. They see this as requiring marginal changes in the way businesses operate, but the basic competitive capitalistic liberal market paradigm lies unquestioned and unchanged. One speaker showed a slide with “paradigm” and “profession” in tension with each other. Aha I thought, someone gets it, but this important realization quickly faded onto the standard jargon of the triple bottom line and sustainable procurement and sustainable this or that, even though the same speaker had mysteriously mentioned the importance of distinguishing the noun from the adjective.

There is an enormous amount of work to be done ultimately to change the underlying paradigm for business and the society that embeds it in its culture. I think the faculties can, however, get the process started with a very simple change. Stop talking about sustainable X, using the adjectival form. Start using the noun. This simple change would force the thinking away from incrementalism. Try this experiment yourself, say sustainability procurement instead of sustainable procurement and think what that means and what kind of research and teaching follow. In some cases, nothing will help, as in sustainable luxury or sustainable styles. Try googling either of these and you will see what I mean.

Unintended Consequences of Best Intentions

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Wal-Mart’s announcement of their plans to develop a “Sustainability Index” has unloosed a spate of comments in the press and cyberspace. The bulk of these fall into three areas:

  • Is this genuine or just a sophisticated form of greenwashing?
  • What will this do for sustainability?
  • Can consumers really use the information to make “better” choices than they have been making?

I am staying out of the conversation about the first topic with one exception. Unless one has information that runs counter to the claims made by Wal-Mart or any other business project that purports to be green or greener, this judgment must come from a set of presuppositions about the general motivations of the firms in question. Given the long record of unsustainable behavior by the preponderance of firms, it is not surprising to see many question the motives of these firms. But times, they are a changing, and it is time to suspend old beliefs and look very hard at what is begin done today.

There is, however, a hidden form of greenwashing that lurks behind all these good intentions. The problem with virtually all of these green initiatives, whether coming in the design of goods and services or the provision of information that allows a buyer to be more “rational” about choice in the marketplace, is that they tend to lull the actor into believing that they are doing all that is needed to create sustainability. As I noted in a previous post, simply naming an information system a “sustainability index” is a form of greenwashing. Anything that promises more than it delivers fits this description. Sustainability is a property of complex set of relationships that cannot rationally be collapsed into any single measure. The whole global socio-techno-economic system must be functioning in a way so that people and the planet flourish. Individual actions are certainly helpful, but work only to make the situation less bad. There is not much anyone can do by reducing their ecological footprint if others do little or nothing. This is one reason it has been so difficult to reach a political decision to act unilaterally. Unless the total global carbon reduction halts the growth of greenhouses gases, the problem will continue to worsen.

Those who use the information on a label to make greener choices in the market may be fooling themselves into thinking they are doing all that is needed. It is unlikely that firms will provide enough information to educate buyers to the systems character of sustainability. Consumption itself is a root cause of the dangerous state of the world. It is hardly believable that Wal-Mart or Target or Ford will couple some sort of sustainability index with a message that the best thing to do for the Planet is not to make this purchase being contemplated, greener or not.

Green labeling is said to increase the trust of consumers in the brands and sources of the goods they buy. My question here is trust in what. Some indication that a firm cares about the environment or social issues? This process would make strides if a tipping point were to be reached where enough firms showed their concerns through their offerings that the whole system changed its values and normal practices. I believe we are a very long way from there.

What we need is a new class of ecological citizens that understand that they are part of the system and thus are part of its problems and its solutions. Indices and labels do not create changed consciousness and sense of responsibility. Values must be changed through some sort of learning process. Unfortunately, the only kind of learning currently available in the marketplace is directed at moving consumers towards “my” products and services whether they are green or trendy or cheaper or whatever. Picking out the choice with the best score teaches very little about the system. One simply needs to look at the plethora of green products to see the desire for more market share and growth as dominant. Like labeling, this feature is not necessarily a sign of bad faith, only of the force of the present system of market capitalism. Every time a local enterprise disappears under pressure from the global corporate world, sustainability gets a little farther away.

The WSJ shows off Berkshares.

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The Wall Street Journal (0nline) recently ran a short video about Berkshares, the local currency being used in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts. The Berkshares home page provides a link. This comes on the heels of a more general article on local currencies done by

I recently posted a comment about a book I have been reading, The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption, by Gill Seyfang. Local currencies is the subject of one of the practical chapters. Their cases are all European-based, but have very similar features to Berkshares. Seyfang argues that sustainable consumption requires five factors, all part of the “New Economics.” All should be self-explanatory.

  • Localization
  • Reduction of ecological footprint
  • Community building
  • Collective action
  • New social institutions for provisioning economic goods and services

Local currencies score very well on all but somewhat less so for footprint reduction. Even in this category, the researchers find benefits in the form of improving recycling and facilities sharing. Increased purchases of locally grown food reduces transportation impacts.

For a long time, such alternative economic provisioning systems have been ignored or even made fun of by mainstream economic institutions. To see this coverage in such mainstream voices is most welcome. Maybe it’s only the economic crisis that has opened their eyes rather than the sustainability potential. No matter. It’s good to see decent, fair coverage.