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Birth of Sustainability 2.0

Our future should be cast as exciting and bountiful instead of dull and limited. It’s about innovation, growth and solutions, not cutbacks and reductions

Our future should be cast as exciting and bountiful instead of dull and limited. It’s about innovation, growth and solutions, not cutbacks and reductions

Peter Salmon

Strategy //

A sea-change has occurred in the way the world is perceiving sustainability. I recently participated in an international conference in Miami called Sustainable Brands. It was an assembly of savvy consultants, designers and thought-leaders, all primed to discuss sustainability’s future.

The consensus was that we have now entered, to borrow a phrase from the web, Sustainability 2.0.

Sustainability 1.0 is characterised by words such as ‘reduction’, ‘cutback’, ‘savings’ and ‘minimisation’. It’s seen as an environmental problem, something business needs to account for, a risk to be managed and a tax to be paid; that we’re all bad, it’s our fault, we must be punished and so on.

New Zealand seems particularly prone to this view. A recent Media Monitor report on energy generation, showed that out of eight countries in the Asia–Pacific region, New Zealand was the only one that had ‘consumer cutbacks’ as one of its top two strategies.

The recession is compounding the problem. An online survey by SAP for the Employers and Manufacturers Association (NZPA, November 4, 2008) stated: “New Zealand businesses think innovation and customer retention are important for growth, but have little time for environmental sustainability.”

As my father used to say: “Everyone’s an environmentalist until the power goes out”. Sustainability has become a ‘nice to have’, not a ‘need to have’.

Which is where Sustainability 2.0 comes in. Our sustainable future should be cast as exciting and bountiful instead of dull and limited. It should be about innovation, growth and solutions, not cutbacks and reductions.

This is more than just a nice idea. Here are three cool examples I picked up recently:

  • Better Place is the bold effort by US entrepreneur Shai Agassi to build an electric car network in California, Hawaii and Israel. The network includes cars, swappable batteries and clean electric sources (see next page).
  • Terracycle is the ‘ultimate in eco-capitalism’, developing a range of products, including TerraCycle Plant Food, an organic, ‘goof-proof’ liquid plant food made from waste (worm poop) and packaged in waste (reused soda bottles).
  • Greenbridge Developments aims to develop “a new kind of community in existing neighbourhoods that promotes human and ecological health. A community that restores the air, water and soil on which life depends, and contributes to the quality, diversity, vitality, and prosperity of its neighbours.” The company is employing new construction methods, renewable building materials and clean energy strategies.

In all three cases, they are re-imaging products and services—but not the idea of capitalism or markets. Buying and selling remain the fastest way to create change.

Sustainability 1.0—compliance, CSR, reduction, limits—still has its place, but it’s not enough. One of Moxie’s associates in the US, Tamara Giltsoff’s main take-out from the conference was that sustainability is finally translating into something new. “It’s not a report, it’s not what you do well/good/responsibly, not a message, not a campaign or not a lone product innovation—it’s a business strategy.”

It’s time to stop stopping and start starting. Let’s leave the notion of limits to the pessimists and instead look for something optimistic and with a little more promise. Let’s look for what’s ‘Next’.