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Maybe There Is No Such Thing As Sustainability

I just returned from a Canadian Summit on Sustainability, where I had the opportunity to explore the connections between Lean manufacturing methods, Total Quality Management (TQM) and sustainability.

All the speakers had to take the time and define what we meant by ‘sustainability’. The definitions ranged from the Bruntland Definition to an elegant and simply personal interpretation, “[All species] Live Well, Forever”.

Seen from the perspective of Lean and TQM, however, sustainability wouldn’t be defined as a new field of study at all, but a twist on what we already know. It might simply be about creating great, fully-considered products desired by our customers. Is sustainability just another take on quality?

The evolution of ‘quality’ bears some semblance to the journey of sustainability. Quality was not always as easily understood as it is today. Back in the 1980’s (big hair, Flock of Seagulls, Yuppies, and leggings) the Total Quality Movement was just gaining momentum. Companies found it hard to define, asked for ‘the business case’ when pursuing a Quality Management System and waited for customers to demand a certain level of conformance to specifications, like ISO 9000, or other standards to help mold the appropriate level of company response to this new business imperative. Deja Vu?

In 1987, David Gavin published a pivotal piece in Harvard Business Review informing readers that quality in fact did not have one definition, but it actually had 8: Performance, Features, Reliability, Conformance (to specifications), Durability, Serviceability, Aesthetics and finally (Customer) Perception. The first 7 actually build up to the final customer perception. You know quality when you see, smell, touch or experience it. The customer has final say in defining what is a quality product and what is not.

Is sustainability just an extension of quality?

There are sustainable products that easily meet all 8 dimensions of Gavin’s quality definition. LED light bulbs, using significant less energy while emitting lumens meet the extended performance definition, The ‘bells and whistles’ on a hybrid or EV provide a customer with new features. Improved reliability is a result of many energy saving technologies and software. LEED buildings, designed for longer periods of time demonstrate the value of durability.

Sustainable products can conform to, at last count, over 400 different types of third-party and customer specifications. But at the end of the day, sustainability comes down to the customer’s definition of ‘better’. Bite into an organic apple at the farmer’s market on a crisp fall day. Is a sustainable product just a better product?

To understand better, understand worse

When defining what a quality product is, sometimes it is more important to understand what a poor quality product is.  It is often easier to understand what something isn’t. What did not work? What did not resonate with the customer? What missed in the marketplace? What are the missing functions or characteristics that contribute to poor quality?  Poor quality is often called a defect or a failure mode.  Once the failure modes are understood, writing the quality specifications becomes easier.

Poor quality comes at a cost. Striving to eliminate all the defects in the system is a foundation of TQM called Zero-Defects. Logically, waste - in all its forms - could be regarded as defects. 

So can we understand sustainability by understanding un-sustainability? Excess waste, excess energy use, toxicity, human rights violations, deforestation, contamination - the list goes on. Once we understand the un-sustainability associated with our products, it then becomes much easier to write the sustainability specification. Just as with the goal of zero-defects, can we have a zero sustainability defect be our goal? Not just less-bad, but truly sustainable?

But, perhaps we are really students and subject matter experts in the field of Unsustainability. It doesn’t look very good on a business card (Chief Fixer-of-Un-Sustainability Officer?). Do we have ‘sustainable products’? Or, do we really have products that are less-unsustainable?

Which brings me back to the customer. Can a product that is un-sustainable be a quality product? If, as a shopper I care about the health of my family, access to clean water, effective use of our God given resources, responsible supply chains, etc., wouldn’t I indirectly or directly associate these characteristics with the quality of product and the quality of the company providing me that product? 

Quality and Sustainability share a lot of characteristics. If we blend them into one field, it will be a strong discipline, and perhaps one we can wrap our heads around. If we do, we need to quickly become like the quality six-sigma black belts where we solve the pressing problems and rapidly move on to continuously improve the system. And in doing so, understand how to radically use less of our resources, improve the lives of all impacted by our products and dream of a future where all live well, forever.


Continual Improvement and Sustainability

Very interesting article and comments, I am also looking to the idea from a Continual Improvement perspective. And happy to have conversations in this matter.

"Do we have ‘sustainable

"Do we have ‘sustainable products’? Or, do we really have products that are less-unsustainable?"

I love this comment because of how loosely people throw around "sustainable." The "S" word has a unique way of being treated both by definition by some and being treated by a newly defined marketing definition of "the type of product/company for your type of demographic if you know what we are talking about." Kudos to Catherine for having this conversation and for pushing the thought process beyond one word toward what people actually value.

I cannot agree with you more,

I cannot agree with you more, and I would like to take this time to clarify and dispel any confused misconceptions of what sustainability really is, and how it has been in our midst, and "hidden in plain sight", yet not too many folks take the time to see it.

I am referring of course to the recent explosion of the term "sustainability" into the lexicon of our everyday world, as a much overused phrase, like "reengineering" of the early 90s, TQM, etc. Yet, to those of us who are intimately familiar with the ISO standards - specifically ISO 14001, and now ISO 50001 - sustainability was never the main focal point. For those of us implementing an ISO 14001 EMS, auditing against the standard as part of continual improvement, or training workers in the implementation and auditing process to get it right, developing an EMS was first and foremost about setting the main driver - the environmental policy - from which flowed the identification of an organization's significant aspects and impacts (primarily environmental), which, in turn, led to the aspects/impacts analysis, and ultimately, to the setting of an organization's objectives and targets as a means to better control the environmental impacts associated with the organization's identified and listed environmental aspects.

Within the targets and objectives analysis of an EMS program is where lies the heart of any organization's EMS, and from which, tangible metrics can be derived. These metrics can come from a number of attributes that would be considered "sustainable" in today's lexicon. Energy savings is a big, low-hanging fruit, as is increasing the energy efficiency of plant machines, and even HVAC systems that LEED APs may be involved in. Yet, all too often, sustainability practitioners, or consultants as they call themselves, leave much on the table in what they recommend to their clients, as do many CSOs without an EH&S or EMS background, who actually may need to rely on their EH&S or EMS personnel for added advice. Why? Simply because they fail to see, or possibly, understand the value that a well-designed and implemented EMS can bring to the "sustainability" table to capture more of that unused value on the table. I have seen firsthand how such value is not captured in my talks with some sustainability consultants, with some LEED practitioners, and others, because I see where an EMS program can be relied upon to gather such data. If this is not apparent to many sustainability practitioners, it soon will be as ISO 50001 takes hold and helps to bolster the value that ISO 14001 can bring.

I have been in the environmental management and compliance arena for well over 20 years, have implemented and audited against a number of ISO-certified EMSs, and have helped my clients or readers use the added leverage of the ISO standards to maximize their sustainability efforts, under the more global ISO 14001 EMS, to allow them to take more off the "sustainability" table to make it a "sustainability" banquet for them.

Is quality just sustainability in disguise?

Yes and no. When sustainability is a process of systematic business improvement, which factors in the social and environmental impacts of activities, sustainability a quality mentality and approach very well. As a deeply transformative concept that questions the heart of current business priorities, process and models, sustainability is definitely NOT quality. A quality mentality/approach actually gets in the way of this. The thing about sustainability is that its not one or the other, its both.

I'd add that I think quality and sustainability have already come together and in fact it was often the place companies started. When I started my corporate career, late 90's, environmental managers sat in quality dept's, were often ex-quality managers and used their processes - we started with E&QMS's. You also mention that zero-based sustainability targets emerged from zero-defect goals. Think you are right about 'blending them into one field though'. Thats a fundamental form of embedding, and will hopefully put these of kinds of sustainability functions out of business

Who Defines Quality?

Hi Catherine -- Thanks for the great piece. I think many of us agree that we need to be building better ties between the idea of quality and sustainability. The challenge at the moment is the need to redefine quality (and relatedly, value) in the minds of both customers and brands. If quality is seen by customers as the least expensive solution to an immediate problem, we have a problem. Our premise, and this is being actively supported by the leaders in our membership community, is that one of the key roles of brand in this generation is to help shift consumer perspective on the definition of quality, and to begin to attach quality to total value in the minds of society world wide so that our current 'consumptive' mentality of buy and discard is universally seen as a disdainful waste. It's exhilarating to see this conversation and action around it unfold at such a breakneck pace in our community and we look forward to taking our shared understanding and action 2 steps forward at our gathering at SB'12 in June!

Catherine is CEO and Co-founder of Cleargreen Advisors. She brings her clients over 20 years of experience in the implementation of sustainability procedures to the work force. She leads sustainability and resource efficiency projects for clients ranging… [Read more about Catherine Greener]

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