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October 1, 2012
Note: This post by New Resource President and CEO Vince Siciliano originally appeared in Sustainable Industries as part of the online magazine’s Thought Leaders series. We’re running it here as an as an example of the perspective on sustainability that we share with clients. --Editor
Every sustainable business knows the three R’s mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. I’ve been thinking and speaking about building on that successful shorthand for conservation principles by suggesting a new version of the three R’s that distills larger ideas about sustainability: rethink, rebuild, renew. With this mantra, we can focus our thinking on the systemic changes needed to create a truly sustainable society.
True sustainability requires rethinking the assumptions and processes that drive our economy. These include:
Linear design, which results in products that deplete resources in their creation and end their lives in landfill. Rethinking this approach means embracing cradle-to-cradle design, which requires a complete lifecycle approach to making products and ensuring that their parts can be reused or disposed of harmlessly, so that everything is in a continuous flow of use and reuse.
Unlimited competition, which can lead to social Darwinism and encourage individuals to define their self-worth based on personal achievements and the approval of others. This in turn leads to excessive self-interest and a lack of social responsibility. The end result is a fragmented society whose members suffer from isolation, fear, and anxiety. In this situation, community support structures are weak and the frontier ethic rules. A different world is possible: what if instead we measured personal success by how much good we do for our community?
Endless growth as the measure of economic success, which results in unsustainable consumption and has failed to solve the problems of poverty and unequal access to opportunity. What’s the alternative? We need to connect the workplace and its outputs to the goals of strengthening communities and enabling everyone to lead a wholesome, integrated life with access to human essentials such as food, health, housing, and education.
Business practices that would help us make this connection include:
- Expanding our accounting system to more completely account for all costs and benefits—for example, the costs of air and water pollution or the benefits of paid employee volunteer time. We need to stop ignoring businesses’ impact, both positive and negative, on communities and the environment.
- Accounting on our balance sheets for the value of employees and other important intangibles that are an essential part of a company’s value.
- Encouraging businesses to address the triple bottom line in their annual shareholder reports by providing a true “balanced scorecard.”
A great example of rethinking in action is B Lab’s work on creating the B Corporation certification and working to pass benefit corporation legislation in every state, which will allow mission-based companies to stay true to their mission as they grow, without fear of shareholder lawsuits.
Rebuilding is rethinking moving into action: rebuilding companies to have this new focus, rebuilding finance structures to support sustainable businesses, and rebuilding our crumbling physical infrastructure on the principles of energy efficiency, resource conservation, and long-term value.
This rebuilding includes expanding the number of financial institutions that will lend to triple-bottom-line companies; providing legal protection for such companies (already under way with the benefit corporation movement); establishing lending standards that recognize the economic benefits of sustainable approaches, such as energy-efficient buildings; and reorienting the investment world toward longer-term returns.
Changing the way we look at the future is essential to successful rebuilding, from both a practical and a philosophical perspective. If we looked at needs from a 100-year vantage point, and included consideration of environmental and social effects, how would we build things? The issue is that we typically look at the future through a present lens, and we always use a discount model—we consider long-term values and impacts and conclude that they’re not really worth much today. But if we were thinking about our grandchildren and great grandchildren, and we valued their lives as much as we value our own, we would approach things differently. It’s hard to imagine that we would proceed as we typically do today.
I’m not saying any of this is easy—it’s legacy thinking. We’ve tended to believe that technology or the market alone will solve long-term problems, and therefore we don’t need to worry about them. But when we look at issues like climate change, it’s obvious that this is not true.
Renewal is what we are ultimately aiming for with rethinking and rebuilding. That means renewing our sense of meaning and purpose, which for many of us has been subsumed in the rat race. (As Lily Tomlin once said, the problem with winning the rat race is that you’re still a rat.) It also means renewing our spirits, reconnecting with our passions and our true strengths, and articulating a personal life vision—which will mean a different path for everyone. Finally, it means renewing our models for growth to recognize joy, peace, and happiness—along with the preservation and renewal of our ecosystems—as measures of welfare.
Most of us seek first to achieve basic financial security in our lives, and then to work toward success, which our society defines as the accumulation of wealth and power. Eventually, we come to seek significance—to pursue a legacy and to do good. I believe we cannot wait to move from security to success to significance: we need to connect all three now. We need to renew our sense of meaning and purpose in all we do. We can only do this when we work toward a greater goal—a goal that’s greater than our personal well-being.