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Examining Sustainability Context: A Thought-Leader Dialogue (Part 1 of 3)

The Context-Based Sustainability Management Cycle | Image credit: Center for Sustainable Organizations

Earlier this year, a small subset of the Sustainability Context Group – an international community of 100+ corporate sustainability managers, academics, analysts, and advisors advancing uptake of sustainability context co-founded by Bill Baue and Mark McElroy – launched into a wide-ranging dialogue and debate via email over the theoretical underpinnings and practical implications of implementing what we affectionately abbreviate as “susty context.” While the dialogue started around a specific standard, it quickly expanded much more broadly. What follows, as a 3-part article series, is an edited selection of “highlights.” 

John Fullerton: I find the phrase "sustainability context" to be not very intuitive.  I'm wondering if it's just me, or if others new to the idea will react in same way. Once we shift to talking about thresholds, then it becomes clear. And I'm someone totally focused on the macro systemic issues of "safe operating space." So one would expect it be intuitive to "someone like me." Wondering if it would be useful to help communicate the concept to change the language to "threshold-based sustainability context," or something like that.

Bill Baue: John, you aren't the first to say this — I’ve spoken with many people who essentially have the same reaction. The issue we run up against is that the term and definition have been set in GRI for over a decade now, raising big implications for trying to change it. I experimented with new language last year here  "sustainability footprint"  but even this has problems, as the Ecological Footprint is thresholds-based, but from there, carbon footprints and water footprints have developed definitions that revert back to merely measuring impacts, instead of measuring them vis-a-vis thresholds. Can of worms …

Marcy Murninghan: “Thresholds” carry at least two meanings for me: it’s where you want to go in, or surpass, as well as where you want to recede, or avoid. When I was a tot, my parents put a squeak toy in the middle of the threshold between the kitchen and the living room, knowing that I was terrified of crawling forward. They could play bridge with their friends at the dining room table, comforted by the fact that I would sit there, watching them, and not crawling over the boundary.

Conversely, in social areas, such as affirmative action or income levels, thresholds mean something else entirely. Presumably, “thrivance” (to use Bill’s wonderful word) means surpassing these thresholds, so that community and ecological well-being can be assured. A small point, perhaps, or an obvious one, but I think the vocabulary that’s used needs to be clear and consistent with the concept being advanced. In one sense, thresholds are limits. In the other, they’re a baseline from which to move forward.

Bill Baue: Marcy, you're spot-on about the duality of thresholds. The positive thresholds for anthropogenic capitals (human, social, constructed) is baked into the Context-Based Sustainability methodology.

Gil Friend: As you all know, I deeply agree with the importance of context in the realm of performance metrics, since context is what turns data into information (and in human affairs in general). I'm inclined to push back, though, from the perspective that thresholds, while perhaps necessary, are also problematic and perhaps dangerous. They suggest an "acceptable" level of damage, and depend on a difficult, sometimes maddening process to determine, and ultimately may be more a matter of political judgments than scientific ones.

In some cases, thresholds make sense; the Ecological Footprint calculation provides a clear comparison between resource demand and productive capacity in a way that makes the threshold crystal clear. In other cases, they don't; parts per million thresholds for heavy metals that are simply not metabolizable by living systems reflect social consensus, not scientific fact, and are not as useful a driver as the Natural Step's principle of "reducing concentrations in nature of substances extracted from the earth’s crust or produced by society." I find that in our design and innovation work with corporate clients, thresholds are far less compelling targets than zero. Thresholds can drive suboptimal design; principal-based design plus unreasonable goals can be innovation drivers.

Natural Step founder Karl-Henrik Robèrt tells a story about thresholds that I tthink makes the point well. As a physician working on a daily basis with human cancers, he observed the inesecapable fact that the conditions for life in cells are "non-negotiable,"and became frustrated with the complexity and misdirected focus of much of the scientific debate on environmental issues — e.g., what is the threshold at which PCBs harm the reproductive organs of seals? In his words, arguing on such peripheral issues is like a householder, whose kitchen is being flooded by several open faucets, worrying about when the water will reach the next room.

You could measure the height of the threshold (in the everyday sense of that low wooden hump in doorways), the flow rate of the faucets, the square footage of the kitchen, calculate how long it would take for the water to overflow the threshold and damage the carpets in the next room, and determine there was time to go get a beer. Or you could turn off the faucets.

I don't raise this to be facetious, or to criticize the intent behind the context work. But I'm concerned about the proposed method of determining impacts and proportionate allocation, since in most cases they are subjective determinations that produce thresholds inadequate to the challenges we face as a planetary civilization. (Two examples in the climate case: (1) 350ppm doesn't spare us major social and economic disruption; it's merely the least bad number people could agree on. Is that the target we want to set? (2) If my company meets its proportional allocation and many or most others don't, is that an acceptable outcome? Should my company rest in the satisfaction of a job well done, of meeting the threshold? Or should we be driving innovation, radical emissions reductions, net zero, carbon negative, restorative ... well, you get my drift.)

To the all-important question of "how good is good enough," it may be that only the market that can decide. The critical element is to provide comparable data in context (trends, ratios, and comparative benchmarks ideally from open, interoperable common reference data), ensure that subsidies are transparent and externalities monetized to the greatest degree possible, and let businesses and nations compete over ever-better performance.

Mark McElroy: There is so much in this discussion that involves epistemological issues, that I feel compelled to step in and say something. I may be well versed in sustainability theory and practice, but my strongest suit is in epistemology, actually. And what I see going on here is a debate over truth and the legitimacy of values. Gil says, for example, that thresholds "may be more a matter of political judgments than scientific ones," as if scientific judgments are somehow above reproach, and political ones are not. The way I see it, neither is above reproach. He later contrasts social consensus with scientific fact, again as if scientific "fact" is not social consensus (among scientists). Does consensus among scientists amount to truth with certainty? I don't think so.

I myself have dropped this science versus non-science dichotomy, as if only science can provide us with a basis for determining which patterns of human behavior are sustainable versus unsustainable. Human knowledge is irreparably fallible, even scientific knowledge. All of us are free to reach our own conclusions, be they consistent with scientific consensus or not. And so the fact that we may not agree on such things as thresholds is not to say that we should not choose thresholds anyway, as a basis for managing and assessing our impacts in the world. Better to have debatable thresholds than no thresholds at all!

On the questions Gil raises relative to how an individual company should feel about defining its company-specific goals, let me say in response: (1) No, 350 ppm may not be the ideal target, but it's the one, according to climate scientists, that is the most likely achievable one that will hold global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees. Disagree with it if you like, but what are our alternatives? Strive for an unachievable target, or no target at all? (2) No, a company can only directly control its own behaviors. But again, what would you have us do, Gil, abandon all attempts to do so because it cannot control the behaviors of all others? Why not do both  i.e., control its own behaviors according to a self-selected standard for what ALL companies OUGHT to do, and separately advocate for all companies to do the same? By analogy, a company can't pay every other companies' taxes, can it? But it still pays its own. What’s the difference?

So if there's anything dangerous in this conversation, it is the assertion that bringing the idea of "thresholds" into the discussion about sustainability is itself dangerous.  

Allen White: I think Gil makes some excellent points that I hope will inform  though not negate  the ongoing dialogue around optimal and intelligent implementation of the sustainability context concept. We all understand that sustainability context is an evolving concept, with much work ahead to define limits and thresholds for the full array of sustainability issues. This will take time. Nonetheless, at this juncture, we all believe it the moment to secure the presence of the concept in the marketplace and to begin implementation where measurement methods are sufficiently rigorous and credible — e.g. carbon, water, living wages, etc … Any initiative designed to assess company sustainability performance  such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR)  faces the question of contextualizing performance relative to thresholds, limits and norms.

Continued tomorrow ....


As an internationally recognized expert on sustainability context, online stakeholder engagement, and sustainability communications, Bill Baue designs systemic transformation. He's co-founder of a number of companies and initiatives:

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