New Bottom Line Volume 7.1 – A Sustainability Cookbook

Jan 13, 1998

A client recently asked me, “Isn’t there some kind of ‘cookbook’ for making a company sustainable.” My first reaction: “Not yet. It’s all too new. No one is there yet, or even close.” My second reaction: “It’s not possible anyway, since circumstances are so varied.”

Once I finally realized “This is something this client needs, or certainly wants, so I’d best not dismiss too hastily,” I got to thinking: “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea after all. We may not know enough to write the cookbook, but perhaps we can outline it.” So bear with me this week as I take a first stab at the 750 word version.

It seems one could approach this challenge in three phases. (Like the other lists in this article, the sequence may not be critical.) What you need to know. What you need to do. How you might proceed to do it.

What you need to know:

  • where you really are today, in relation to both business goals and to the physical operating systems that sustain life and economy on this chip of rock hurtling through space;
  • where you’d really like to be in the future, in relation to both of those and your people’s deepest aspirations;
  • whether you’re really willing to invent your future, rather than respond to events;
  • what business you’re really in (so you can focus on really building value).

What you need to do:

  • Look reality in the eye. Understand the laws of nature…and your company’s intersection with them.
  • Look at real data reflecting physical reality in context — e.g., pound of product per kwh of energy, or revenue per ton of toxic releases — and pick relevant measures for continuous improvement of your throughput efficiency.
  • Engage everyone — suppliers, customers and employees at all levels — in designing strategies and solutions that can meet unreasonable goals.
  • Build a culture of accountability, and a compensation system that supports it.

How you might do it:

  • Make sustainability strategic. This key perspective enhances each of the other ingredients — shifting environment from an operational function to a strategic driver of your company’s economic future — by reconceiving and leveraging core competencies, demanding and achieving breakthrough efficiencies, conditioning for resilience, calibrating for uncertainty, sharpening organization-wide reflexes and embedding the laws of nature as a guidance system that is durable in the face of inevitable change.
  • Get the senior team on board. The breakthrough may not start at the top, but had better include senior leadership in order to get the deep strategic commitment needed.
  • Align both your organization’s physical systems — facilities, equipment, procurement, processes & systems, products & services — and its organizational systems with the laws of nature. Pursue breakthrough efficiency, quality and innovation. More value, less stuff.(The catch here is that the technical challenges are ultimately far simpler than the human and organizational challenges. Facilities and machinery can ultimately be engineered toward clearly articulated goals; people change belief systems and organizations change culture and character in a far less orderly way.)
  • Inform and involve everyone. Leadership from the top is essential, but it’s no substitute for innovation and understanding from every point on the front line. (The Natural Step provides one particularly useful framework for turning an entire workforce into environmental managers, though there are certainly others.)
  • Make “design” the fundamental conversation, and the key to linking long term and short term success — how, not whether, to meet clearly articulated “frame constraints” (in Bill McDonough’s design terminology) of both the marketplace and of the biosphere.Buckminster Fuller’s basic protocol in his World Game workshops was straightforward, and effective: Define the present state of affairs; Define the preferred state (as specifically as possible); Explore pathways that connect the two, scanning backward from the success as well as forward from the problem. (Now apply that approach to the challenge of zero ecological footprint.)
  • Build an environmental management system that embeds real-time environmental performance tracking in existing management information systems.
  • Align incentives with strategy and objectives. Don’t expect people to produce one result if you reward them from another.
  • Implement, experiment, monitor and learn. And cycle through again.

That’s one possible outline of a sustainability cookbook. You know how it is with cookbooks: for any dish you might imagine, there are dozens of recipes, many of them claiming to be the “only right way.” On the other hand, great chefs, like great jazz musicians, often treat a recipe as a starting point for improvisation, with sometimes transcendent results.

If there’s interest, I’ll attempt to flesh out this outline over coming months. And I’d welcome your input and suggestions: what should be included in a “sustainability cookbook? what not? have you seen one (or pieces of one) that fits the bill?

(c) 1998 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

May be posted intact–including this notice–in any non-commercial forum.
Please inquire at “reprint_rights at natlogic dot com” before reproduction in any commercial forum.