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Oh, No. Now You Say Sustainability is a Dirty Word?

Just When We Created A New Sustainability Topic On BPX….

Three references to the use of the word Sustainability appeared in my line of vision and all three seemed to point to an evolving sense that this word Sustainability has some connotations that are not very inspiring or aspiration engendering.  And given that this is a topic that we are now focusing on in our BPX community and given that we are creating a whole new Sustainability area on BPX where the community can collaborate and discuss the themes of Sustainability; these questionings of the use of the word Sustainability more than caught my attention.  They stopped me dead in my tracks.  Or at least for the moment.

The first reference was in a blog post in  “The Environmental Leader” entitled ‘Sustainability’ Risks Losing Effectiveness as a Term  and it in turn pointed to second reference by MIT Sloan’s Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, called Sustainability: Not What You Think It Is.

Peter Senge’s blog describes the nuances of the word sustainability which he defines as a “negative vision” of the world.  He suggests replacing the word with the phrase “all about the future”.

“What we’re talking about is arguably the greatest challenge to innovation that humankind has ever faced: reinventing our whole way of living. And every single example I know of where something meaningful has happened, where people have worked at something that’s taken five years, 10 years, 15 years, it’s because of people’s excitement toward something that really draws them. It’s aspirational.”

But while that phrase “all about the future” might be inspiring and aspirational one still must look for concrete actions for businesses to take now in the present while beginning to implement transformative strategies on the road to a sustainable future. (Read the full contents and see the abstract in the blog highlighted as: Senge’s Sustainability Takeaways for Senge’s further elucidation on this topic).

From a BPX community perspective, my own personal takeaways from the article focused on two named obstacles that “keep organizations from acting on sustainability problems/opportunities”.  According to Senge they are:

  • Non-systems mental models  -people don’t know where sources come from or where products go to
  • Need to collaborate across functions internally and across value chains and sectors externally

To me, both of these “opportunities” or challenges fit in rather well with a BPX view of the enterprise model; one that is: process oriented, organic, horizontally focused, modeled across silos and with a mindfulness of the product lifecycle and includes an intentional “from cradle to cradle” way of thinking.  In Senge’s vision, these “improved” process models start with reducing waste in energy, materials and waste matter and demand an understanding of the entire system as well as a consciousness of exactly which and where processes can be streamlined. Even when some small steps in process improvements are taken (say, for example, using less resources: water, energy, materials), savings are realized which subsequently free up revenue and enable further investment.  According to Senge that investment should be focused on creating new products which accordingly foster energy efficiency and ultimately reduce the necessity to focus on being “less bad” and instead free companies to be “more good”.

Sustainability Themes on the New Sustainability Pages: 

During the coming weeks we will work to restructure the BPX Sustainability Homepage, its contents and discussions to reflect the following themes: 

  • Climate Change & Energy – Reducing Carbon Footprint, Promoting Energy Efficiency,Tracking,Reporting
  • Product Stewardship – Product Lifecycle Management and Compliance Standards
  • Health & Safety – Environmental Health & Safety Concerns
  • Green IT – Reducing a Data Center’s Energy Consumption,Lifecycle of IT Equipment,Sustainable Code  
  • MicroFinance – More Equitable Distribution of Business Opportunity,Unleashing Human Energy/Creativity
  • Vetting the Content With The Community and Our Experts 

    So I’m still at a loss as to how better to call these pages.  Not sure that a blog topic or wiki catergory or forum discussion called “all about the future” will really work for what we are attempting to do here.  Even Senge reverts to using Sustainability as “lingua franca” (or what is simply and commonly used).  As always, we look to you, our community, to weigh-in to help us fashion what is in and what is out of scope for our topics.  What makes sense in your organizations, in your process streamlining, in your worldview?  Is Sustainability something, as Senge says, that moves from marginal importance, to someone else’s problem, to something personal affecting us all?  For those of us who have cared about this topic for many years, it is quite a relief to see it finally go “mainstream”.

    While writing this blog entry an additional 3rd example of concern with the word sustainability popped up in my twitter stream without any apparent or obvious reference to the first two blog pieces I’ve described and since it belongs to one of our new community members, I’ll reference it here.  The example appeared as a set of recent “tweets” by Sustainability Strategist and BPX Sustainability blogger:  Neal H. Levin.

    Hopefully Neal will also weigh in on the suitability of the chosen Sustainability Themes on BPX. 

    You can see and subscribe to Neal’s tweets by clicking the graphic below and following him on Twitter.

    Neal Levin's Twitter Stream

    Neal Levin's Twitter Stream
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    • Marilyn, according to our 2008 corporate sustainability report, Halliburton uses the Dow Jones Sustainability Index to benchmark the organization's progress in sustainable development efforts. The 2008 report was brought to the attention of all personnel in a message from our CEO and is available on our public web site. I was pleased to see that not only the areas where we outperformed our sector were mentioned, but also mentioned those where the company underperformed and is focussing improvement efforts. I see "sustainability" as the lingua franca; it may have taken longer to get there than some of us would have liked, and may still mean different things to different people, but I think that it has reached the tipping point with indices such as the DJSI establishing a benchmark.

      More information on the DJSI can be found on their web site:


      • Thanks for the link and the reminder that such reports are not meant to be feel-good certificates but rather roadmaps to process change.  I love the fact that our 2008 Sustainability report has evolved from being a document to be more collaborative in nature as David Burdett details in his blog: Not your usual Corporate Sustainability Report And making this report so universally transparent not only to our own company and its employees but to the outside world as well ups the anti for us to focus on improvements and tap into our ecosystem to hold us to our goals.  And yes, we call it a Sustainability report, so I guess we aren't going to shy away from that word in the foreseeable future.  But I have noticed a number of folks cringing when we speak of green or "eco" this or "eco" that.  I also like to hear our company's focus on walking the talk, so the words take a back seat to the actions.
    • Thanks for this blog. I am surpised to hear the negative remarks on sustainability. It's probably targeted at us marketers, as people might be zynical and see the current interest in sustainability as a marketing ploy. I am sure this is true for some people, but - if people are getting interested in something that is good for all of us, I don't care so much why they do it. I hope most will see that sustainability serves a dual purpose: Long term ROI PLUS Long term healthier planet.
      • This quote from Senge's article resonated well with me and aligns to your thinking of bigger than now but expands that to encompass a bigger than oneself (individual, organizational) perspective... bigger than the periphery of what you might think of as your company.  Senge writes:  "you’ve got to challenge your taken-for-granted assumptions. Once you start addressing these issues, you start working across all kinds of boundaries inside your company and outside your organization, which means collaborating across functions and collaborating across value chains and collaborating between sectors. If you’re going to look at your whole value chain—waste, toxicity, resources and the social functioning of your value chain—you’re going to be dealing with NGOs, which know a lot more about the social and environmental reality than you do."  I guess no matter what we call it, the concern and the interest in this topic isn't something that is going away.  Not in this world of climate change and not in this climate of economic stress.