Sustainability is dead; long live sustainability.

Sustainability has gone “mainstream.” Firms develop sustainability strategies, develop sustainable products and business processes, produce sustainability reports, and appoint chief sustainability officers who tout sustainability as being core to their mission. University administrators promote sustainability as central to their curricula. Scholars pursue sustainability as a field of research inquiry. Consumers buy green products, drive low-emission cars, and are seemingly bombarded with marketing campaigns that incorporate environmentalism. The world, it would seem, is on the road to a sustainable future.

It is not.

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms, and green buildings are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something good for the planet when, in fact, things are getting worse. According to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “Humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period.” We have increased species extinction rates by up to a thousand times over rates typical for Earth’s history. Almost 25 percent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44 percent are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere. A recent study published in Science found that average global temperatures were higher in the past decade than over most of the previous 11,300 years, and that this increase is most likely caused by human activity.

Despite the mainstreaming of sustainability, we are not becoming more sustainable. How can that be?

The answer lies in who is defining sustainability and what agenda they are pursuing. While the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future, popularized “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” the concept has been reconstructed by everyone with a stake in the issue: governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, foundations. You name it, they’ve used it. But of all these groups, it is perhaps business that has taken the strongest role, embracing the concept as an issue of corporate strategy. Sustainability has become a slave to business interests—often merely a label for strategies that are driven by age-old standards of economic efficiency as opposed to planet-first motives. This demoted and diluted notion is far from sustainability’s meaningful intent.

In drifting toward unsustainability, we have lost our vision. True sustainability still has not entered our consciousness, in spite of the ubiquity of the term and its cousin, “green.” At this moment in time, almost everything being done in the name of sustainability entails attempts to reduce unsustainability. But reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create sustainability.

Sustainability in its truest sense is not some new technology, the triple bottom line metric, or series of steps that corporations and consumers adopt. We need to look beyond the economic and technological aspects of sustainability and focus instead on its behavioral, cultural, and institutional underpinnings. In fact, there is strong reason to be skeptical of “sustainable technology” and products that fool us into thinking we are solving the problem. If we learn to make a product or service more sustainable, all we’ve probably done is figured out how to make the wrong thing last longer. What we need to learn is to make not just any thing, but the right thing, and make it to last.

Real sustainability is highly critical of modern culture. It challenges us to move away from our present-day “culture of commerce,” in which consuming has become a central tenet. It recognizes that this path to today’s “good life” is a mirage, an unfulfilled promise, and a myth based on the dominant notion of “Economic Man,” the archetype of human being that is based on measuring value in purely economic terms, sees relationships as primarily transactional, and extols wealth maximization as the ultimate goal in life.

Therefore, addressing sustainability fully and meaningfully requires a fundamental shift in the way we think and the way we organize our society. We don’t need eco-cottons and cloth diapers; we need a deep shift in our values that is on a par with the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. These are changes in the way we think about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. This notion of sustainability demands, in the words of early twentieth-century ecologist and author of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold, an “internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” Change that is short of that scale simply will not be enough.

John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman are co-authors of the forthcoming book: Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability (Stanford University Press, April 2013)


John Ehrenfeld

John Ehrenfeld is author of "Sustainability by Design" (2008) and Flourishing (with Andrew Hoffman). He retired in 2000 as the director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. In 2000...


Andrew Hoffman

Andrew Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, a position that holds joint appointments at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of...

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