Untangling Sustainability

Mike Smith
April 25, 2023
rope tied into a knot

One of the things we see at Aclymate is an ongoing conflation of sustainability and climate in business. While climate is a component of sustainability, sustainability is a lot more. And I’d challenge you to define it.

You’d probably start with the dictionary definition of sustainable, which talks about “..a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” I guess that’s clear enough, though it doesn’t give much guidance towards the work a business should do. Going to the longer encyclopedia definition, the problem gets murkier, as sustainability is applied to all nature of issues from international development, to human resources, and to the environment. The deeper you dig, the more complex it becomes – a 2018 paper in Sustainability Science on the subject found that definitions were not standardized and led to confusion.

This isn’t malicious – the need for sustainability emerged from a broad understanding that business needed to change to include a broader list of stakeholders and, as such, was a concept born of necessity by many parents. It also reflects the nature of the problem - sustainability is at its core a systems problem brought about by systems thinkers. It’s been important intellectual work.

An overhead view of a very small boat in the middle of a big, blue ocean.
You dealing with your sustainability problems.

But there always comes a time when intellectual activity needs to translate to action. And that translation almost always requires simplification, because trying to change systems at once is an impossible, boil the ocean problem. To achieve success means the problem must be broken into projects that will involve non-experts. That is where sustainability finds itself today – struggling to make the transition from academic thought and the offices of Fortune 500 sustainability directors to the application by individuals and organizations that don’t have the time to become systems-level sustainability experts.

Three waste bins outside. One green labeled "Compost", a red one labeled "Waste", and a Yellow one labeled "Recycle"

We see evidence of this confusion all the time at Aclymate. Companies are very proud of the huge efforts they’ve made on recycling or tree-planting and think they’re doing a lot on climate. But they don’t understand that despite their significant and best efforts, their positive impact is very small relative to their negative one. That their investment of time and money, while not wasted, was pretty inefficient. This can be very dispiriting and those who refine their efforts should be especially lauded.

I would argue that unless you’re in a resource intensive industry or have a full-time sustainability professional on staff, you shouldn’t think about broad sustainability, but should instead just focus first on climate. That in a resource-constrained business (of which over 99% are), you only have time to work on a few initiatives. Those initiatives need to be maximally effective for the time and money spent and should position your company to gain strategic advantage. Climate meets those objectives.

Now don’t take this as denigrating the need to incorporate sustainability into your business. You’ll need to do that to continue to achieve success and you should keep this in mind as you move forward. It’s just that sequence matters and climate is where most of us should start.

A footpath through a green field with a foggy mountain valley in the background.

But here’s the paradox – by focusing on just climate, you’ll find yourself well down the path of sustainability. Why? Because climate touches everything. And working on your climate problem will almost certainly reduce demand for resources, improve business efficiency, and improve your bottom line. And in the process, you’ll learn enough about sustainability to become more effective.

So be careful about those that intentionally conflate climate and sustainability. Stay focused on a problem that you actually can control and for which you’ll see a return on your investment.

Mike Smith
April 25, 2023

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