Sustainable versus unsustainable

A few weeks ago I read with interest this post on John R. Ehrenfeld’s blog. I’ve been following this blog ever since I’ve read John’s book Sustainability by design – A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture, which I’m planning on discussing in a post some other time.

In this particular post, John tries to make a coherent list that defines the different views from our current, unsustainable world and a sustainable world. Before I go into this any deeper, it’s important to give  you two quotes from the book that clearly define John’s (and mine as well) view on sustainability:

Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.

Sustainability is not merely about staying alive (or as we tend to see it nowadays, not dying), it’s about thriving as humanity. It’s about surpassing the struggle for survival and focusing on self-actualization (I will go in deeper on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs some other time). It’s about looking at nature as an ally to get to this state.

Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.

The second quote is a bit harder to get by. Like John, I to believe that focusing on performing better, using less materials, reducing waste and almost every other current attempt on sustainable living, will only lead to buying us some more time. It will not stop us however from driving towards the cliff we’re heading for. In order to create a sustainable society, we’ll have to get through the unpleasant part where we have to question some things we took for granted to long like economic growth and GDP as measure-unit for well-being.

With these two quotes and some explanation, I would like to get back to the blogpost I was talking about earlier. As said, John came up with a list of where the current unsustainable world contradicts with the sustainable world:

Sustainability World

Unsustainability World

Sustainability Unsustainability
Creating Sustainability Reducing Unsustainability
Being Having
Authentic Inauthentic
Care Want (Need)
Love Fear
Intrinsic values Extrinsic values
Enchantment Disenchantment
Spiritual Secular
Complex Complicated
Interconnected Autonomous
Bio- or eco-centric Anthropocentric
Holistic Reductionist
Communitarian Individualistic
Cooperation Competition
Pragmatic Dogmatic
Constructivism Positivism
Technological skepticism Technological optimism
Equity Efficiency

Apart from the question whether or not you agree with this list, it’s striking to see some of the words on the sustainable side are the buzzwords of our current entrepreneurial landscape. Concepts like authenticity, love, spirituality, holistic and cooperation (to list a few) are getting more and more attention in everyday business. Even though they’re more exceptions than the standard practice, I can’t help thinking on how we could apply this list on different business models and what this could create.

I’ll explain my thought with the example of products-as-services. Even though this business model is not particularly complex, it managed to shake several markets already. People start to realize they don’t have to own a product in order to benefit from it’s advantages. Even more, by not actually owning it, a lot of stress is taken away from them.

Products-as-service is an easy catch, but how about starting up a company that creates sustainability rather than reduces unsustainability? One that actually sees the planet as it’s most important asset AND creates great experiences? Free sharing of knowledge (constructivism and cooperation),…?

When it comes to creating a holistic, comprehensive vision, lists like this can help to question the way we’re doing things now and how we could be doing them if we’re aiming to end up with a sustainable society.


About leyssensjan

Jan Leyssens is a designer and entrepreneur who strongly believes you can’t turn sustainability into a positive story if your main focus is on negative impact. When designing, he is always looking for the overlap between activism and entrepreneurship, technology and community. His main expertise lies in strategic business model development, Circular Economy, the makermovement, and social innovation. With a background in Industrial Design, Jan quickly shifted his focus towards business design and using the design process in strategic management. Jan is the father of two kids and founder & CEO of Regenerative Design, co-founder of Full Circle, ImpactBoost, and the Circular Design map, podcaster, storyteller, and changemaker.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Sustainability and happiness | Keep the game, change the rules

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