Models of sustainability

I know that the term sustainable is old fashioned, and people prefer “regenerative” for many good reasons. However, there are good reasons to take a look back at what sustainability is. One of them is that there are already well-accepted and widely used standards frameworks that, if put together, could give governments, local authorities and corporations best practice guidelines. That indeed would be a lot better than People, Planet, Profits triple bottom line thinking as I will explain.

Nouns are terrible placeholders for values. They say very little. What does we value people really say? In fact, as a placeholder it just invites you to add your own meaning as and when you wish. And profits – although a measureable, it still says very little.

Sustainable – at least means something useful as it means capable of going on. I like the idea of “acting in a way we mean to go on”. Sounds like a good legacy for future generations. To break it down you need adjectives and nouns.

Instead of:

  • People
  • Profit
  • Planet

How about:

  • Healthy People
  • Healthy Environment
  • Thriving communities
  • Thriving businesses

These all impact each other. One practical approach is to identify the behaviour of one of the aspects and its effects on the other. Behaviour which places a stress on the other should be limited, behaviour which benefits – or even regenerates – the other should be reinforced.

For example

FromToNegative BehavioursSymptom Effect
CommunitiesEnvironmentRelease nutrients into water course

Release of non-degradable plastic
Eutrophication, algal blooming, loss of eco-system services

Build-up of microplastics in environment, degradation of eco system

Interestingly most of these areas are covered, both by science and by standards and regulations as the examples in the diagram below show.

What gets interesting, and seems to be under-researched, is how to identify the behaviours and connect these to mitigations and limitations.

Rawanda might provide some insights. It is litter-free. The behaviour of people throwing waste into public spaces was deemed unacceptable so they put heavy fines on littering (equivalent to four month’s wages). They policed littering hard, a few people got busted, and now there are healthy public spaces and the environment is healthier.

The pattern is:

  • Identify the symptoms
  • Match to behaviour of people, systems and objects
  • Design limitation and mitigation interventions
  • Implement, monitor, measure

For corporations, or any organisation for that matter, the approach would be the same – to identify the burden on the other aspects placed by operations, prioritise, design and implement. At the same time, an inventory of those positive assets may help as they can be employed to reduce the negative burdens.


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