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Strategic Sustainability: Turning an Insurmountable Issue Into a 'Decision Challenge'

In honor of this year’s World Water Day (March 22), the Coca-Cola Company, WWF and Global Water Challenge launched the #ToastToWater social media campaign to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The collaboration exemplifies Basile’s idea about using "the social web, sustainability frameworks and better knowledge to generate new decision-support pathways, tools, platforms and opportunities to make our everyday decisions better."

George BasileGeorge Basile is a professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University (ASU), a Senior Sustainability Scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and affiliate professor in the School of Public Affairs. He co-developed ASU’s new Executive Masters in Sustainability Leadership, where he serves as faculty lead in strategic sustainability. We spoke with him about his work across various sectors and reframing sustainability as a “decision challenge."

Anna Lui: You have led sustainability efforts in four different sectors: for-profit, non-profit, academia and government. How does your approach change for each sector? What do you find is common between all four?

George Basile: First, the fact that sustainability professionals do work across all these different sectors demonstrates the breadth of sustainability, in terms of the challenges we face and the opportunities it can bring. It also shows how each of these sectors has a very different and important role to play.

A lot of the differences come from their different objectives and structures. For example, if you have a business that’s really just focused on strict economic gain, you have to make the sustainability argument along economic gain. That said, most businesses have a much broader perspective than just making money - they want to make money in a certain way and have a specific value proposition.

The truth is, today’s businesses are so big that they impact global systems, so sustainability issues become everyday business issues. For example, Home Depot is faced with the question of how to buy and sell wood sustainably, because they are the biggest purchaser of lumber in the US. They have become so big that their everyday purchasing decisions have global implications. A sustainably managed forest becomes part of the business strategy.

At the same time, we’re seeing more businesses meeting market needs. We’re seeing more customers demanding healthier food and quality products and services without the environmental damage. In these cases, there is a market pull to be more sustainable.

Ultimately, businesses are really global creatures and sustainability is a global reality.

Moving on to the nonprofit world … a lot of people assume that nonprofits are automatically more interested in sustainability than for-profits, who are concerned with financial gain. That’s not necessarily true. Nonprofits are mission-driven; sustainability must make sense as an important component of executing their organizational mission. For environmental organizations such as WWF and NRDF, corporate sustainability is making more and more sense as a major part of their work. They’re moving away from the old conservation model of putting a fence around an area to protect it and moving into “how do we sustainably manage a place.” In nonprofits without an obvious environmental or sustainability mission, sustainability officers could end up being as much a translation officer as at a for-profit organization.

Governmental agencies usually have to operate under a mandate. In some cases it may be a mandate that addresses climate change or sustainable development, but often they’ll have a more targeted mandate, like the water district or school districts. There, a sustainability officer has to be able to translate sustainability into strategic ideas and actions.

The ways they are the same? They’re all full of people and at the end of the day people care about the future and their communities. All sectors are also becoming increasingly global. They’re also working more with each other and sharing more success.

Each sector has such an important role to play. Once a business figures it out, it’s like, “Get out of the way” because they will be moving fast. Government plays a role in setting the field. Nonprofits have a very important purpose of filling the gaps, because sometimes government just can’t keep up. You really do need the whole community.

AL: And where does academia fit in?

GB: Academia’s role is really two-fold. One: They work with these actors and figure out what works and doesn’t work. Two: education. I have been really amazed by what our students can accomplish when they’re armed with the right tools. Creating the leaders of tomorrow — that’s really our number one tool for creating a more sustainable future and that’s why academia is so important.

AL: What does “strategic sustainability” really mean? How is different from “strategy” or just “sustainability”?

GB: Because sustainability grew out of issues like biodiversity loss, global inequity, greenhouse gas emissions, etc., sustainability is often presented as a set of problems that you need to address. Because they’re often big global problems, they can also be very disempowering. It’s incredibly disempowering when I say, “Anna, you need to solve climate change today.” It’s very disempowering when you only start with the problem and make everyone solve it individually.

Strategic sustainability provides a more complete picture of how the world works. We take the best systems science and the best strategic knowledge and ask, “How can we use the ideas of sustainability as tools to better innovate, to better invest, to run better businesses, to create better policies?” We take sustainability as a platform for innovation and success to design and implement better strategy.

Strategic sustainability becomes a success tool as opposed to a set of wicked problems. You are now empowered to make decisions that will reach solutions. Instead of an overwhelming environmental or social problem, it becomes a decision challenge, and we can do that.

AL: Your area of expertise includes integrating sustainability with the psychology of collective behavior change and collective decision-making. Can you speak a bit about the role of collective behavior and decision-making?

Sure - although, be forewarned, it is a big and very important topic, especially as we have reframed sustainability as a decision challenge. I have a whole group of lectures on the topic.

Many sustainability issues are hard "to see" - they don't fit easily into how we typically perceive the world. For example, they are very large-scale, long-term and confusing. That is not a good list for things that you can "easily see, grasp and be empowered by." This is also true for our institutions today, which reflect many of our own decision-making contexts. That is why sometimes things that are urgent, timely and impact everyone, like climate change, are still not immediately picked up and acted on. In many ways, it literally "does not make sense to us," given all of the above.

So, one big way to overcome these challenges in "seeing," "deciding" and "acting" on sustainability issues effectively is to work together, collaboratively.

Working together actually helps those who can see sustainability challenges today help the rest of us see them too. Here's where the group psychology comes in:   

  • Trusted individuals can bring new ideas to the fore and, at the same time, validate the idea so that we can take it in ourselves. Think about someone you trust telling you something new or that you never thought about before. It is fundamentally different than hearing it from just "somewhere." It has meaning.
  • Working together allows people to muddle through challenges together. This gives them the permission to be confused. New ideas are confusing and working with a supporting team validates your effort to learn and change. Think of anytime you have tried to set yourself a goal, from learning a new language to losing weight. Having a supporting group makes all the difference.
  • Collaboration can build trust both around new ideas and new people. Trust has been shown to be the most important ingredient to coming up with successful self-governance solutions to complex open-resource problems (think solving tragedy of the commons issues). Trust means people will learn from each other, make agreements and act on them, and be interested in the bigger success of all.
  • Collaboration extends each of us to a "bigger group." For example, I have students who through the magic of the university and its social web are now connected to peers all over the globe. When there were drought issues in parts of Africa, it became personal. I watched students here change habits in their daily water habits to show support for their group.  

To me, the latter brings up one of the most exciting possibilities: How do we use the social web, sustainability frameworks and better knowledge to generate new decision-support pathways, tools, platforms and opportunities to make our everyday decisions better?

AL: Any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our readers?

GB: ASU has a whole portfolio of programs on sustainability, but I do think there is a special role for executives right now to learn about sustainability as a leadership platform, which can help them differentiate themselves and fill a huge gap in most corporations. I think executives bring maturity and a set of skills that we need in the sustainability field. Executives definitely have a specific opportunity of leapfrogging us to where we want to be.


See what else ASU is working on the field of Sustainability by visiting the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives at Arizona State University brand hub


Anna is an Insight Development Research Associate for Sustainable Brands. As part of the Content Team she researches trends in sustainability and assists in program development for our conferences. She brings a decade of media and community organizing experience, a… [Read more about Anna Lui]