It is that simple. And it is that hard.

I’ve had an interesting conversation on Facebook the past few days, which has reminded my that there are very few people who truly understand that sustainability is a core principle and a tool that must feed and inform all that we do.

There is a struggle going on at my alma mater, with actual protests (the largest since the Vietnam War), statements of fear of repercussions from speaking out against the current administration’s policies and actions, and a current pivotal issue about the continued leadership role of student government in management of the student union. If you want to know more about the concerns and efforts to bring awareness to the administration and President, google RPI and student union and you should find some information.

That is the background. The conversations ticking away on FB and through other media with many alumni seek to define clearly the full range of concerns to  make the case and put some weight on the administration. I stated that the current and clear issue is the continued student role in running the student union, and there are ongoing and chronic issues of need for transparency, increase in respect for staff and students, and improved financial stewardship. I furthermore suggested that the lack of sustainability goals and reporting is reflective of this. And someone commented that I must set aside my “pet” concerns.

Well, you can absolutely bet that didn’t sit well with me. I responded, with a bit of lead-in, with “please don’t make the serious business-minded acknowledgement of global burdens and benefits a “pet” of mine”. In reflection, I realize that most people do see sustainability and TBL as a “pet” concern or an add-on concept. This is a big problem.

There are certainly businesses that have gotten beyond this, such as Patagonia and Interface that both worked very hard and continue to work to improve their business model and “”do well by doing good”. There are businesses founded upon clear up-front core green goals, such as Ecovative that I mentioned in last week’s post, and Method Cleaners that started with the premise that clean cannot mean adding toxins into air and water that we all share. But mostly sustainability is part of a required report, or something to market to show “we care” which ultimately means that each project and each idea has the burden of adding in these thoughts on top of the normal planning. Sustainability should inform not only the project, but the instigation and selection of the project. And we must instigate the projects and develop them in a process that fosters sustainability of the company, the staff, the products, the mission.

It’s like the story of the do-gooders who taught a tribe to plant squash in a fallow field. This was for the good of the tribe – they needed to up their food production and obviously they needed to learn the techniques to benefit from this potentially bountiful field. So the do-gooders spent time and money teaching the tribesmen, planting the squash, and setting up classes to show how to best harvest. Then, a few weeks before the tribe could harvest the squash, a herd of rhino came through the village: passing right over the field, mowing down the plants and destroying the crop, eating a few bits and pieces along the way. The tribesmen shrugged and said “that’s why we don’t plant there”. None of the do-gooders ever asked them. No one said “what do you need, what have you tried, what things affect your planting?” The do-gooders thought they knew more than the tribesmen who had lived there for generations.

Mother Earth has lived here for generations (vast understatement, of course). So we should certainly be asking her some decent questions.

But more than that, we need to incorporate the info we gather and the long-term views of the resultant informed goals into our planning processes. If a business or a private institution of higher learning or a lemonade stand can tell you its energy use per unit and its plan to reduce it, if they know their percentages of waste in their work be it administrative submissions or squeezing lemons, if they can spell out how they communicate and engage with their customers and staff to inform the product or service, then that entity is on the right track with sustainability as well as with transparency, communications/respect, and fiscal responsibility.

It is that simple. And it is that hard.

Be greener, every day. It’s work, and well worth it.


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