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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Sustainability and business and dissonance
November 27, 2012 - 5:18pm

When I get off Greenback's campus and into the surrounding community of Backboro, I often work with local government and grassroots organizations concerned with sustainability.  The government groups, of course, are constituted within (and so inherently committed to) prevailing structures of governance.  The grassroots organizations -- more often than not -- try to align themselves with either the locally prevailing economic interests or with efforts to develop/expand the portfolio of economic interests in the Backboro area.  No surprises, in either case.  If you're going to get something done, you need to work with folks who have enough clout to be able to create change.  The problem that arises, of course, is that in many cases these are the same folks and the same interests who created the very situation that now (I'd argue) needs changing.  Sometimes, aligning your efforts with existing power structures puts you in a position where you can't effect change, or even seriously discuss the possibility.

Back on campus, I'm talking to more and more folks who want Greenback's sustainability efforts to align with the existing funding structures.  Like most research universities (private and public), those funding structures are increasingly tied to regional, national and global economic interests.  Again, the folks we're trying to align with are pretty much the same ones who created the problems we face.  They didn't create them intentionally, I'm sure; I have no fantasies about hidden conspiracies to warm the planet or make the seas more acidic.  But, increasingly, the interests that hold major sway in decisions of national/global economics and politics don't have issues of sustainability at the top of their "must solve" problem lists.

Sidebar: Marks & Spencer, the giant British retailer, recently announced that every year it sells a billion sustainable products.  Above and beyond the question of whether selling a billion of anything at all per year can ever be considered sustainable, the announcement clearly raises the question of just what M&S means by "sustainable" in this context.  Turns out, it boils down to products that have even a single  "eco or ethical feature that goes beyond the market norm".  By that standard, M&S figures over a third of its goods qualify.  But think about this -- almost every product has several features -- what it's made of, how it's made, how it's transported, how it's intended to be used, how long it lasts, how it can be modified or enhanced or extended or repaired, how readily it can be broken down, how it's intended to be disposed of -- that have "eco or ethical" implications.  Thinking that going beyond the market norm on any one of these makes a product "sustainable" reveals a high level of either ignorance or self-delusion.  And statistically, if we assume a significant variety of characteristics randomly distributed for each feature set already listed (there are 8) and extend the definition of "market norm" to mean-plus-one-standard deviation, we'd expect something like three-quarters of goods to qualify, not a measly one-third.  Clearly, there's something in the structure of the system which mitigates against even this weak definition of "sustainable".

A few, at least marginally within the business world, acknowledge the problem and are at least talking about trying to raise awareness of it.  One example might be an event next month in Toronto, where the topic will be invention of something they're calling "Capitalism 2.0".  I can argue with the nomenclature (being that we're WAY beyond "Capitalism 1.anything" by now), and I'm far from convinced that the organizers are really talking about incenting behaviors that are more than marginally less unsustainable, but at least the possibility of recognizing systemic disconnect -- and resulting societal dissonance -- is getting some small amount of attention.

Sidebar: Two guys -- one from Walmart and one from Saatchi & Saatchi -- recently announced the launch of yerdle, a social networking site that means to reduce product demand by facilitating sharing, borrowing and other forms of reuse within existing friendship circles.  I like the concept, I like the overall design, I wish them both all possible success in their efforts.  But recognize that the two founders were each chief (or at least first) sustainability officers within their respective prior employers -- not from traditionally powerful departments like marketing and sales.  Also, recognize that what they apparently realized within their corporate sustainability setting is that, to help society become measurably more sustainable, they had to get out from under the corporate umbrellas. Their efforts serve mainly to corroborate the existence of structural challenges.

I'm not sure the campus sustainability community has made the same intellectual leap.  More and more, I'm hearing a tacit acceptance that the mainstream sustainability efforts of the business community (many of which boil down to one or another form of greenwashing) have blazed a trail that campus sustainability initiatives should follow.  But following the cultural mainstream on this one, while a path of least resistance and perhaps a way to resolve cognitive dissonance, has the disadvantage that it won't take us anywhere near where we need to go.


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