Sustainability. The word arouses passion in some, curiosity in others, and indifference to most. If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you’re one of the knowledge seekers in the first two groups of people, so I want to share with you some of the secrets that I’ve learned about sustainability over the past eight years. After all, we are all in this together, we are all on the same side, and together we are stronger.
As one of 16 newly minted 2013 BALLE Fellows, I would fall into the first category of people. I understand that the word sustainability doesn’t fire up the imagination - regeneration would be much more appropriate - however the concepts behind the word can keep your mind spinning for a lifetime. I like to look at sustainability as a mindset, or better yet, as a philosophy. It is driven by creativity to minimize the use of resources, while generating value across a spectrum of social, financial, environmental, and cultural considerations.
It’s been almost 15 years since I started my company, Eclipse Awards. Since 1998 we rode an unprecedented wave of prosperity during the birth of the internet, and then weathered a massive global economic depression that we are still recovering from. Over that time we also transformed from a traditionally run business into one that is actively exploring the potentials and realities of “sustainable” business and what it means to create value in the new economy.
The transformation has not been easy and it’s still underway, but the rewards are rich and satisfying. I’ve learned that sustainability is both an art and a science as well as a journey. Sustainability benefits from creative and big-picture thinking, but it flourishes through collaboration. Through my business experiences at Eclipse Awards and my community building experiences at the Strathcona Business Improvement Association, I’ve distilled an approach that is helpful whenever you want to improve the sustainability of something - it doesn’t matter if you’re addressing policy, product design, or community building, the approach is the same.
In some languages there are dozens of words to describe the subtle variations in snow. In English, there is only one word for sustainability and it means a lot of different things to different people, but what I’ve found is that there are actually three types of sustainability or sustainable thinking and that not all of them are necessarily worth pursuing.
The next time you’re considering a sustainability improvement, pause for a moment and consider where it falls on this spectrum. As an example, let’s use something we can likely associate with, the ubiquitous car industry, and look at it through various lenses of sustainability.
Level 1 or Red Herring Sustainability
Level 1 Sustainability is focused on making an existing product or system more efficient. It involves making improvements to the existing paradigm - simple yes, but also dangerous and I’ll explain why. To start with our example of the car industry, Level 1 Sustainability would include any attempts aimed at improving the gas mileage of cars or efforts to make existing cars more fuel efficient.
When you start to look at various sustainability initiatives, you’ll find that Level 1 is the most common because it is simple and easily defined - usually our first impulse is to try and improve upon what is already there. However herein lies the danger and why I also call it Red Herring Sustainability - when we work to improve what is already there, we run the risk of further entrenching or extending the lifespan of an unsustainable product or idea. So when you encounter or employ Level 1 Sustainability, be sure to weigh the short term gains against the long term implications.
Level 2 or Light Green Sustainability
Level 2 Sustainability is focused on innovating within an existing paradigm. To continue with our example of the car industry, Level 2 Sustainability would include efforts to innovate different kinds of cars - perhaps designing cars that run on electricity or maybe even seawater.
Level 2 or Light Green Sustainability is characterized by creativity and collaborations, which often lead to larger and more impressive innovations. In some cases, Level 2 solutions may be perfectly acceptable or as far as we can currently go, however sometimes even out of the box thinking can still be inside the box. Again, where possible we want to avoid simply extending the life of an unsustainable system or product.
Level 3 or Deep Green Imagination
Folks, this is where the real magic happens! Level 3 Sustainability is where the existing paradigm is melted away and a new one is imagined in its place. To round out our example of the car industry, this is where we would step back and question why we are even using cars in the first place. Why are we building communities that require cars? Instead we should be focusing on designing walkable communities.
Level 3 is where imagination and vision and big-picture thinking come to life. This is where we dream up the resilient new systems that will honor the sacred and celebrate the human experience. Level 3 Sustainability flourishes through collaboration, in fact, it rarely happens without a diverse set of groups working towards a common goal. Imagine any productive ecosystem and you’ll start to get the idea - no single entity can be as productive or as effective on its own. This is where I hope we will focus and leverage our efforts as BALLE Fellows in the months ahead.
Like it or not, the responsibility of creating and building a new economy has fallen upon our generation. Figuring out how to build resilient economies that regenerate the planet while bringing happiness and prosperity to all - this is both our challenge and opportunity. It’s going to take a lot of collaborations with Level 2 and 3 thinking while avoiding the short-term distractions of Level 1. Armed with this knowledge, I hope you can dig deeper into your sustainability and Localist work while focusing more closely on areas where you can make the biggest impact. After all, we are all in this together, and together we are stronger. Onward good people!
Toby Barazzuol is a 2013 BALLE Local Economy Fellow. He is president of Eclipse Awards and chair of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association in Vancouver, British Columbia.