Nov 30, 2014

Oh My, How Sustainability Has Changed!

© 2014 by Alan AtKisson of the AtKisson Group

Sustainability work has certainly changed over the years. I was reminded of this when an email arrived, telling me that Sustainable Seattle (an NGO I co-founded in the early 1990s) was accepting nominations for their annual leadership awards. You see, I remember sitting in my kitchen, making the very first such award, almost 20 years ago.

When I say "making the award," I mean that literally. Kara Palmer, then-coordinator of Sustainable Seattle, and I put together an artsy, home-made award plaque out of re-used and found objects. It was in keeping with the spirit (and budget) of the group at that time, and indeed with the spirit of sustainability then, at least as I experienced it:  simple, creative, down-to-earth. 

(I was an avid biker, and before I moved from an apartment into a house, I would carry tubs of compost in plastic containers around with me, in my backpack or on the back of my bike. Then I would "gift" my kitchen waste to friends who had compost piles. That's what I mean by "down-to-earth".)

Two decades later, I live near Stockholm, Sweden, and our compost gets collected by the local municipality every other Friday. No need to bike around looking for places to donate my onion peels and egg shells: we have a system for that. 

Sustainability itself has changed in similar ways. Once the exclusive province of the counter-culturists on one end of the spectrum, and the researchers and senior UN officials on the other (with not much in the middle), sustainability has long since found its way into the mainstream. And we have systems for it. 

There is the Global Reporting Initiative for companies, the ISO 26000 guidelines for organizations, countless frameworks and assessments and training tools (my company created some of these). 

So it’s no longer about collecting compost. Sustainability management now covers all the long-term economic, social, and health or wellbeing aspects of a company or community or nation, just as much as it does issues related to environment and resources.

And sustainability has moved from the kitchens of voluntary and civic groups like Sustainable Seattle, to the boardrooms of the world's biggest corporations. Next week I will be moderator for the Gothenburg Award, one of the world's most prestigious prizes in sustainability, and the winner will be Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. (I’m pretty sure his plaque will not be hand-made in somebody’s kitchen.)

And while I obviously was one of those counter-culturalists back in the early 1990s, hunched down at one end of that two-ends-and-no-middle spectrum I described earlier, now I find myself working with those UN officials who were over at the other end ... and with everyone in between, from small-town mayors to national governments, from leading scientists to school children. 

Sustainability has truly spread "everywhere" in the past 20 years. I went so far as to write a book last year with the title, "Sustainability is for Everyone" — because I truly believe that we are at that stage. When football teams are going sustainable, you know the term has firmly established itself as a normal part of normal life.

I take it as a great sign of hope that the global community of nations is negotiating, right now, its first-ever universal set of goals for ... well, for the whole world. For human progress. For eradicating poverty, caring for the Earth, providing good lives for everyone without destroying nature in the process. Called the "Sustainable Development Goals," or SDGs, their adoption is truly a watershed historic moment. 

But does that mean the "sustainability movement" has succeeded? Oh no, not yet. The idea may be well established. Some basic goals and good practices have certainly rooted themselves into business, government, education, municipal planning, and more.

You just have to look around, though, and read the data on things like climate change, our use of the sea, youth unemployment, the migration of refugees, and of course headlines revolving around armed conflict and disease vectors to realize that we still have far to go. We now understand that we need sustainability. We even understand a good bit about how to achieve it. 

But there is still an awful lot of work to actually do, at every level, from global policy making, to the reorganization of corporate supply chains, to the acceleration of development for the billions who do not have enough. And yes, we still need compost systems — lots of them — for the world's growing cities and mega-cities. 

Analyst Aromar Revi speaks of global urbanization as a "giga-trend," with billions of people making the transition from agricultural to urban lives in the space of one or two generations. That's going to take a whole new level of innovation to accomplish sustainably.

Which brings me back to Sustainable Seattle, and all the initiatives like it, all over the world. Local initiatives, based in cities. Promoting change. Initiating projects. Rewarding leadership. Not only have we not outgrown the need for groups like these, who keep pushing the envelope and continuously raising the bar.

We need them more than ever. 

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