Posted by: genevievetaylor | June 20, 2008

Why eco-efficiency is not enough!

Simple “eco-efficiency” (as the Natural Step for Business calls it) is a tremendously important part of industry’s evolution towards sustainability. And it is simply not enough.

But lets define terms here. The term “eco-efficiency” was first brought to popularity by The Natural Step for Business (originally coined by Carl Frankel in his book In Earth’s Company), when it talked about industry’s evolution towards sustainability. The Natural Step says that the natural evolution of business into sustainability over time goes through these four stages:

Compliance (Regulations like those the EPA puts out to keep pollutants out of public space.

Beyond Compliance (Companies begin to look for savings, begin to see sustainability as a part of their competitive edge.)

– Eco-Efficiency (Profit-driven approach; began in tandem with the Total Quality Management approach)

Sustainable Development (Environmental Goals; enters mainstream organizational culture; Companies start to design with natural resources in mind.)

As you can see from this model, eco-efficiency is actually quite high in the evolution of industry towards sustainability. Eco-efficiency is really the technical side of sustainability; it is easier to put into place with some technological fixes – a new HVAC system, a carbon-footprint analysis, a lighting retrofit.

But the biggest reason that eco-efficiency is not enough – and possibly triple-bottom line thinking is not enough, is that it only one part of the business process. It looks at reducing costs and correcting mistakes as opposed to creating a vision of what could be. And, it only includes “people” as a by-product – there may be benefits to people, but it does not consciously include people as part of the solution, as opposed to simply a means to the solution.

Sustainable Development, on the other hand, is closer to the mark. It talks about environmental “goals”, sustainability becoming a part of the “culture”, and “designing” with natural resources in mind – all signposts for “things to do” along the way to making your organization sustainable.

One of the most inspiring ideas I have ever heard was the vision detailed in the first couple of pages in Natural Capital – of a factory spewing out water that was cleaner on its way out than on its way in.

Imagine that – an industrial factory valuing the clean water it produces as highly as the water it uses for its practices! Would that we find ways for all of our organizations to do what the boyscouts teach us – leave it better on the way out than on the way in.

Sustainable Development starts to get us there. But even that idea doesn’t include the whole system, and comes, truthfully, from a simple environmentalist perspective that ADDS environmental goals to the mix, as opposed to something more fundamentally related to the way the business conducts its business. Does simply adding salt to flour make the flour salt? Does adding environmental goals to a business make it sustainable?

Do we have to move beyond environmentalism in our quest for a sustainable organization?

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