Sustainability is a Cooperative Endeavor

Sustainability is a cooperative endeavor. None of us can fully achieve it until all of us achieve it together.

A Harvard study Global Warming’s Six Americas looked at Americans to gauge their attitudes toward climate change. The study determined that 18% of the US population are alarmed about Climate Change issue, 33% were Concerned, 19% Cautious, 12% Disengaged, 11% Doubtful and 7% Dismissive, which means that they actively oppose work towards elimination of GHG (Green House Gas), viewing it as wasted money and effort. In the words of Kofi Annan, “Climate change is a silent human crisis, yet it is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time.” Looking at the figures alone, we might feel somewhat discouraged about the possibility of achieving universal sustainability. But, there are also other ways of looking at sustainability which might make us more optimistic.

Encouraging a cooperative view of Sustainability

After reading the Six Americas report, I wondered what the level of support for “Sustainability” might be if the Harvard study had asked a slightly different question which concerns the level of support for sustainability when viewed it in its’ simplest and most individualistic form. For example, “Do you agree that you are entitled to food, water, shelter, education, jobs, health care and a clean environment, rights which are essentially enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the constitutions of most progressive countries?” My hunch is that there would be almost universal support. But that’s really what Sustainability is about.

The challenge that we face in gaining higher levels of acceptance and participation lies in the fact that most of  us are not directly confronted by the impacts of our behaviors on a day to day basis, even though in many countries, the impacts are becoming more obvious. As we look out from our windows and live our lives, our own world might already seem relatively sustainable, and, from that perspective, there is little urgency to make it any more sustainable.

In much of the world, especially in northern or southern climates, we see sunny days, breath seemingly clean air, have ample supplies of food and water and have no major problems other than finding work, or perhaps stress from working too much. We can’t see the CO2 levels rising, and other than what we see in the media, issues such as poverty, water shortage, starvation are literally a world away.

For those of us who live in cooler climates like Canada, the prospects of global warming seem almost inviting. After all, who wouldn’t want it to be a little warmer? And there are many other countries that face a similar dilemma. It isn’t that we don’t understand climate change as a potential threat to our way of life, it’s that we have precious little energy either during or at the end of our work day to think deeply about the inherent opportunities of taking action, or the potential negative consequences of in-action. As long as we don’t see immediate and severe consequences, we will tend to take the road we are most accustom to.

A Scheme to Encourage Involvement

After speaking with many experts on the subject of sustainability, looking through many organizational schemes which are designed to promote, educate and encourage support of the sustainability movement and contrasting the countless efforts and billions of dollars spent by these organizations with the progress that has been made to date, most proponents of sustainability still conclude that the rate at which we are adopting and acting on a vision of sustainability, through our contribution to environmental, social or economic initiatives, and our movement toward a “net zero” world is painfully slow. Many would agree that it’s too slow.

Among the many global initiatives, the UN Global Compact , the Global Reporting Initiative, S – bar (the sustinability rating group), and the various Green Building Councils are a few that I’ve had time to investigate in some detail. There are also thousands of private initiatives such as Al Gore’s initiative, the Inconvenient TruthThe Clinton Foundation, and others each of which have generously contributed to the world effort. And even the many corporations and government entities who have been forward thinking and dutifully jumped aboard the sustainability band wagon are only really started along the path.

Without devaluing the many efforts, there still appears to be some missing links, at least one of which is a simple shared vision of sustainability and a mechanism that will help us all to measure the steps along the way.

Based on my own assessment, what appears to be missing is this:

1. A mechanism of tying the good heartedness of people to informed, simple and progressive action.

After doing just a little investigation, it’s easy to see how complex of an issue we face. As individuals, we are unable to unravel the complex web of possible solutions with the little available time we have. But it occurred to me that people would be happy to participate and show their support if there was a simple, beneficial, and encouraging means of participation. No one wants to be dragged into a new culture out of fear, threats of disaster, or by being told that they would need to give up their old and comfortable way of living.  But if we can start to show our support by simply stating it, I suspect, most of us would be willing to do that. A statement like “I support working with others to make the world a better place to live.” would be a fairly easy first step and yet would enshrine the most fundamental principles and values of sustainability. It also incorporates an agreement to “work cooperatively” towards that endeavor. Once we know who the supporters are, we can work with them to make their life better as well as our own.

2. A simple mechanism of sharing the message with others.

Generally, when we get involved in something that we feel is helpful to others, we like to share with them.  Social networking is a good example of how we involve others in our personal cause.  Viral marketing is another example of how good ideas spread through an exciting message. While both of these methods may be used to encourage others to participate in good causes, the question then becomes “participating in what and how will that help solve the problems we’re facing?” Simply stating our good intentions is great, but it’s not enough to actually accomplish anything. By slowly engaging those who are willing to support the initiative, it is like starting a flywheel. Once spinning, it’s hard to stop. And we reward the effort of sharing by acknowledging their higher level of contribution. More about this later.

3.  A simple, encouraging, solutions oriented approach

Much of what we see in media focuses on the parts of sustainability education that look at the negative consequences of in-action. Although these are important messages for informing us about what’s happening, but these types of educational programs eventually have a numbing effect and rarely help us to envision more clearly the future that we are moving towards. Not all initiatives are negative though. There are many educational initiaves that are geared toward building theoretical and practical knowledge of sustainable solutions. MBAs, LEEDs building programs, model building initiatives, sustainability tours and courses are just a few. While there are many incredible initiatives for sharing the solutions, there is still a disconnect on the ground level without a centralized and systematic means of sharing and diseminating information about practical steps on a large scale. As we become more educated on the subject of sustainability, we also need to know how to share this information in relatively simple understandable steps.

As we advance, we need to know where we can find effective and reliable solutions. We need to have systematic ways to know who needs help, we need to know what to share and how, and we need to know who can help us as we also strive to get to the next level. By systematizing the approache, we reducing the amount of effort required in gaining the knowledge we need. One of the most powerful ways of multiplying this effect is by helping businesses to gain capacity in both doing and in sharing. And if there are additional rewards and recognitions for taking these steps, we are likely to feel more encouraged to take them.

4. A simple way of introducing rigor to the process which gives the participant a supportive means to ramp up their efforts

Participants first need to know they are part of a community who wants them to succeed.  We are all in this together and, in all other respects, we may choose to compete. But in this one, we need to cooperate.

Much of the challenge in getting companies to participate in reporting initiatives in the past has been the unintended consequence of exposing corporate weaknesses. But until you start seriously thinking about your impact and start measuring it,  you never know how far you have to go. Any successful approach will need to encourage transparency without any initial penalty, either monitarily or in reputation. Exposing weaknesses must be viewed by all participants as a step in the right direction, however ugly the initial exposure. The weakness is essentially a request for guidance and assistance from more capable organizations.

By providing the tools to do self examination first, and educating businesses on the process of becoming more rigorous about measuring sustainabity, and by providing tools and assistance, each participant slowly builds the capacity to know what to do next.

And by participating in a cooperative sustainabilty endeavor a business is rewarded with both the assistance of other participants and the many unforseen benefits of becoming progressively more capable in adding sustainable value through their services and products. But as participants, they also share the responsibilty of helping other organizations to attain that capacity.

That leads to the next question: “Who should we help?”

At earlier levels of the process, it’s enough to measure ourselves and our own corporate contribution to the value chain. Later, we begin to look at our suppliers and expect that they also participate at some level. And finally, as we become truly mature in the process, we are able to choose and assist suppliers who are willing to make the effort to becoming sustainable themselves. The rigor comes in imposing this level upon our own company but the rewards are also great. By introducing truly sustainable approaches, our organizations become well recognized for having acheived the higher levels of capacity.

Just as in school, we want to advance to the next grade level. If we think of sustainability as a cooperative learning effort, we know that progressing to the next level requires us to have more rigor and more capacity. Within each grade, we are scored in different ways. Just as we cannot expect someone in kindergarten or grade one to be as wise to the world as a university student, we cannot expect newly enroled participants in this process to adhere to the same rating schemes as those who already adhering to the Global Reporting guidelines and who may have the financial capacity to devote entire departments to the sustainablity issue. At the same time, as we first join the process, we need to feel that once we have joined the community, the community is there to support us, not to scorn us for being late comers to the process.

And once we have joined this community, there are ample opportunities to think about what it means to be 100% sustainable and to get a better handle on the larger implications. For example, I may be sustainable in my own part of the value chain, and in my businesses contribution to the world, but if I continue indefinitely to buy from suppliers who have no interest in becoming more sustainable, or if I’m not aware of their activities, I inadvertently contribute to an unsustainable situation. Similarly, if my rating only reflects my part of the value chain, my clients don’t really have the whole picture either.

Getting to the next grade means that we self impose a more rigorous rating approach. The approach needs to provide the tools to be able to examine our own suppliers, and our supplier’s suppliers, and be able to assess their impact on the world as well. And at the highest levels, our own rating need to reflect the ratings of all of our suppliers. Only this way will we be able to make informed decisions and know which of our suppliers are most in need of assistance.  As we are more able to find out how suppliers are doing, we are able to choose those with the best track record and we are also able to encourage and support suppliers who are not yet at the levels that we would want.

5. A view of 100% Sustainability as a step in the process

Achieving a net zero impact will be a challenging task for a world that has long been accustomed to exploiting the resources of the earth with little regard for the long term impact.  But we are changing and it is only through having a unified and clear vision of what a sustainable society looks like that we will ultimately achieve this goal. So the highest level of participation and the highest level of rating would be given to a company that adds its value with a net zero impact and which uses only suppliers who also have a net zero impact.  While this may seem like an impossible task, it is through 100% participation that we will begin to see the emergence of companies with this level of achievement.  We can envision that clusters of companies who depend upon each other will become the first to achieve this level.  Others will undoubtedly follow shortly.  As there is an expansion of the number of suppliers who are rated as 100% sustainable, it will become significantly easier to achieve this rating.  The challenge we face now is that what ever supplier we use, we ultimately depend upon organizations that have not achieved this rating.

A Graduated Solution

In devising a scheme to encourage participation in sustainability efforts, I was deeply aware of some of the current reporting and rating initiatives. Rather than introducing yet another rating scheme, it seemed prudent to share these ideas with other rating organizations who might choose to join together and adopt them.

Ultimately, if we can come up with one single connected rating approach for all companies, all nations, and all people, we will have achieved something truly significant. Recognizing that such an approach will require immense amounts of Data Storage, this endeavor requires the assistance of an organization with global reach and one which is already established and funded. While the underlying ratings will increase with the size and complexity of the organization, the approach for sharing this information need not be too complex.

My hope is that a few of the more well known organizations: the Global Reporting Initiative, the S-Bar sustinability rating organization, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, CIES and others work together to implement a creative system such as the one proposed.

The system I suggested to S-Bar works on the following basis:

To attain level 1- supporter, you must simply sign-up and there may (optionally) be a small fee. For that fee, you get a web-site listing as a supporter. Perhaps your employees get a sustainability pin of a certain color (e.g. a black star with the main dimensions of sustainability as its points and no rating at first)

To attain level 2- sharing, you must document on the ratings web-site, all of your suppliers even if they are not participants. Second, you must share information about the program with them. You must also learn and understand the self-rating system and prepare for a self-assessment and self-rating. At this level, you must agree that your goal is to help supplier companies to participate and to improve. The associated star color might be brown.

To attain level 3 – committed, you must ensure that all of your suppliers are at very least at the 1 – supporting level. You must have completed the self assessment and given yourself a rating. The rating would have different levels for each component of sustainable behaviour. S-Bar already has a system under development for this purpose. The associated star color at this level would be yellow.

To attain level 4 – complying, you must ensure that all of your suppliers have reached the committed level and have self-rated themselves. Your proposed rating becomes a calculation based on the proportion of your revenue spent on each suppliers multiplied by their rating plus any rating that your own company has for itself. The concept of this rating is that you only rate that part of the value chain that you are directly responsible for. These two rating may appear separately at first. The color at this level would be orange.

To attain level 5 – reporting, you must report and begin setting goals for achieving a zero impact. At this level, you are also preparing for an audit by following specific rating guidlines and you must have a schedule in place for achieving sustianabilty goals. The reporting may be done according to the Global Reporting Initiative or other accepted standard. Specifics of the report method may vary by industry, however, the translation of ratings for the global ratings guideline would still need to hold. The color at this level would be red.

To attain 6 – audit level,  you must have an audit to confirm your assessment. All of your suppliers must be at least at the 4 – complying level. There is an encouragement at this level to either help your suppliers to become compliant or to seek other suppliers who are compliant. The star color at this level would be violet.

To attain 7 – optimized level, each of  your suppliers must have been audited and each must have a clear plan for reaching zero impact including changing suppliers, energy sources, and a plan for social contribution, etc. I would like to suggest here that we cannot allow the concept of social injustice to continue on, so at this level, there needs to be methods of bringing developing nations and people to the table and helping them to become participants. I haven’t worked this out exactly yet but there are others who would be able to contribute to this idea. The color for this is a blue. Your rating on each part of sustainability would be available on the ratings web-site.

To attain 8 – sustainable level, you and all of your suppliers must reach this together.  The color for this level is, you guessed it, green.


Although the details of any plan would need to be discussed with participating organizers, the underlying philosophy of contribution, consultation and connection would need to be up-held. After all, we are in this all together and if we take on the responsibility for our own part of the value chain and all encourage all of our suppliers to do their part, eventually, we all reach the goal of sustainability together. I’d love to hear your comments and would be happy to participate in any effort to implement such a plan. Also, if you like this idea, please share it with others.

All the best,

Garth Schmalenberg, B.Eng. CPCC

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