There was once a primordial soup ... life began, but conditions were too toxic for us. Eventually, most things that were toxic to human life had sunk down deep into the earth, leaving smaller concentrations that we could tolerate, and the ecosphere was a safe place for us, and we were alive. We had some problems here and there, but we did pretty well for a while. Then, we dredged up old, concentrated energy and toxic metals through mining and drilling, and we built industries and products that relied on an ever-increasing supply. We made chemical compounds that were so strongly-bonded that they wouldn't degrade. We paved over the soil and wetlands that would have helped things cycle back into the earth, would have helped filter dirty water. We cut down trees and forests that filtered our air and housed whole ecosystems. We polluted because not polluting would have been more expensive. We overfished because we could and because there was demand. We paid lower wages because customers wanted cheaper clothes, and we grabbed land and resources because we needed to secure our supply chains. We broke trust between people and businesses, governments, and fellow members of our communities, and they had more and more trouble meeting their basic needs. People and natural resources were there to serve our demand for profit.
So how do we step back from what we've been doing and account for the capacity of the planet or the resilience of our communities when we consider our daily actions or business decisions? We clearly can't go on forever as we are, but we also have to make a living, and that has to be done within our current economic circumstances and structures. Looking at people, profits, and planet as a triple bottom line is a good first step, but we need to understand the inherent dependencies in the system to see how things we do for the environment or our broader communities can bring value to our businesses.
To understand these dependencies, consider this: Your business cannot survive without customers and suppliers. Customer and supplier well-being depends on the health of society. Society's health, in turn, relies on the health of the whole ecosphere. By being good stewards of the environment, we can restore the health of our societies, and by being good stewards of our communities, we can ensure the well-being of our customers and suppliers - the ones we rely on directly. We can also find creative ways to care for the environment and community that bring direct benefits to our businesses.
So how do you know if you're being a good steward of your community or the environment? Will buying an electric car and donating to local charities be enough? A strategic approach is necessary to help us sort through all of our options and understand the trade-offs between one good thing and another.
The Natural Step, an organization that was founded in Sweden, gives us four sustainability principles that we can use to evaluate our actions with respect to the environment and society. These principles are high-level for a reason - they don't talk specifically about how to curb climate change, for example, as that is only a symptom of unsustainable behavior. Instead, they outline the most basic actions necessary to ensure that we can live in balance with our planet, in perpetuity. It is an upstream approach that anticipates future problems and helps us avoid them.
To become a sustainable society we must...
- eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (for example, heavy metals and fossil fuels)
- eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society (for example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT )
- eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes (for example, over harvesting forests and paving over critical wildlife habitat); and
- eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people's capacity to meet their basic human needs (for example, unsafe working conditions and not enough pay to live on).
It's important to note that almost no business can say that they meet all of these conditions right now. They are meant as guidelines to help us understand what we're doing now, how far that is from where we want to be, and then take steps that bring us toward a fully sustainable future. It's also important to understand that if the use of heavy metals or compounds produced by society are critical to your business (for example), there are still ways that you can change your business model or work with partners to manage those materials more sustainably.
Please contact Loop Strategies to learn more.