What if “sustainability” meant just doing the right thing?

Business consultant, regenerative systems thinker, planner, business consultant, regenerative systems thinker, and author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability & Success (2011), Carol Sanford gave a keynote address on the last day of the Living Future “un-conference” in Portland, Oregon. Working as a land planner, she began to explore ways to think about “the whole system,” which led her to regenerative systems thinking.

CSanford book

She began to believe that the leverage points in our system were often in the business world, and started consulting private companies, such as Kingsford, manufacturers of charcoal for home grills. “We never said ‘you should care about the environment,’ or exhorted concern for ‘the community.’ We just talked about how the entire system worked,” she said. “Looking at the whole system and listening to customers resulted in amazing improvements in the product and its manufacture as well as a vast market share that has persisted to this day.” Sanford’s book has been celebrated as a top business book of last year (not as a green business book), and it’s all about 30 companies that became “green” and socially responsible without being told to do so.

In fact, Sanford shies away from those words (and seems a little peeved that “sustainability” is in the subtitle of her book at all). “I work on creating great businesses; I do not work on corporate responsibility or sustainability,” she said. “The power is moving away from organizations to individuals. This is due in part to social media.” Her next book will be The Responsible Human, and she’s looking for crowd-source input to develop the content.

She is fascinated by what moves people—and what does not. “We often think that people are not paying attention to the data,” she said, “but it turns out that is not usually the barrier when someone appears stuck on a given issue. It’s often a capability issue.” Sanford believes that there are ways to open up people (and the organizations they populate) to a process of capability expansion that can add value—and meaning—to lives and businesses and systems.

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is director of communications for William McDonough + Partners, an architecture firm with studios in Charlottesville, Virginia, and San Francisco. She is also co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design.

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