Pushing a paradigm shift
In order to make sustainability work, we need a paradigm shift. Systems thinking offers a solution to understand sustainability in its complexity. We live in a non-linear environment that consists of many self-organizing elements. However, we often still treat these elements in isolation which causes disconnected targets to be chosen and makes it difficult to view the problem holistically. This means that companies which merely pick out a few popular topics to focus their sustainability efforts on, will not be very successful.
So what is a system? In short, a system contains interconnected and interdependent components that are connected with each other while feedback loops alter its behavior. For companies, the system they are influencing usually goes far beyond their core business. It’s important to be aware of how businesses operate in a system as this gives a better view of how sustainability efforts actually impact the environment.
This has everything to do with feedback loops. Unforeseen feedback loops can cause your company’s sustainability efforts and your business harm. Such a negative effect can be seen through the Jevons paradox, meaning that technological progress aimed to reduce the usage of a product actually increases consumption. For example, creating more energy-efficient cars is a great effort to become more sustainable. However, it might have the effect that cars become cheaper to own and use, leading to more cars on the road and overall more fuel being needed. This shows that although the intention of becoming more sustainable is there and that even though the work is being done to become more sustainable, the result might still be harmful.
General Motors has said to stop selling new petrol-powered cars, and to be fair; electric cars are much better for the environment (with the exception of charging them on a heavy-coal grid). But that doesn’t mean electric cars are harmless. Mining raw materials for the batteries still happens in hazardous conditions (often breaching human rights) and can have extreme environmental effects on nearby communities. Betting everything on eco-efficient solutions won’t solve the problem.
Moving away from incremental change
When thinking of solutions to reach sustainability targets, businesses often still get it wrong. They’re focusing on minimizing the negative externalities instead of creating positive benefits. A widely used term in sustainability literature & business is the triple bottom line (TBL): a tool proven to be useful to incorporate sustainability in the corporate agenda by evaluating the impact on people, the planet, and profit. But it’s merely slowing down environmental destruction instead of creating positive change. Not because of intent, but because of poor design.
It would be much more beneficial if companies would strive for the triple top line (TTL). This design perspective thrives on systems thinking as it encourages you to see rich relationships rather than inherent conflicts. The triple top line takes ecology, equity, and economics into account with a fractal triangle. Each design decision has an impact on all three and can generate value in all three. Where friction arises, is where creativity triumph.
Designing the right things
Sustainable business ideas require a lot of testing when it comes to converting them into scalable solutions. Remember the potential of unforeseen feedback loops? In sustainability, doing rigorous experiments is key. A well-known example of a sustainable innovation failure is Valspar, a painting company. With the best of intentions, they removed an additive that was harmful to the environment from one of their paint lines. But what they didn’t account for was that the removal of the additive allowed bacteria to grow, resulting in people’s homes smelling like cat pee. Or when Ford introduced soy-based license plates only to be eaten right off the car by barnyard animals.
Unsplash - @themephotos
At oneUp, we know the importance of continuous testing and de-risking business ideas. With our experience and proven methodology, we make sure that your sustainable intentions will result in actual impact. Something I’m currently seeing is that companies usually have ambitious growth targets but also high sustainability ambitions. This sounds tricky, but this is exactly the challenge that requires systems thinking. Together with our clients, we aim to create creative and proven ventures that contribute positively to the environment and strategic goals.
Did I spark your curiosity about the topic? Here are some additional sources for you to check out!
- Design for the Triple Top Line (https://mcdonough.com/writings/design-triple-top-line/)
- 25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase “Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It. (https://hbr.org/2018/06/25-years-ago-i-coined-the-phrase-triple-bottom-line-heres-why-im-giving-up-on-it)
- Holling, C. S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4(5), 390-405.
- Smith, A., Voß, J. P., & Grin, J. (2010). Innovation studies and sustainability transitions: The allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges. Research policy, 39(4), 435-448.
- Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking (https://medium.com/disruptive-design/tools-for-systems-thinkers-the-6-fundamental-concepts-of-systems-thinking-379cdac3dc6a)
- Braungart, M., McDonough, W., & Bollinger, A. (2007). Cradle-to-cradle design: creating healthy emissions–a strategy for eco-effective product and system design. Journal of cleaner production, 15(13-14), 1337-1348.