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Sustainability Talks

How Might We?

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A couple of months before The Great Shut Down, I attended a three-day class at my college alma mater, called Leadership for Sustainability.  Based on the title, I thought I would learn about programs that would help my company achieve industry-best sustainability ratings and help my team improve our sustainability reporting.  I expected to learn about science-based targets, the Sustainable Development goals, and the Global Reporting Initiative.

We didn’t do any of this.  After the first day, I called home and announced that I was too old for school, and the class probably wasn’t a great use of my time.  However, I had invested in the class so I went back the next day and buckled down to figure out what I could get out of it.  I’m glad I did.

At the end of the course, on the way to the airport with a couple of other students, we talked about the fact that the class had little to do with sustainability; rather, it was about systems design, focusing on the “how,” or in the design world How Might We? And, in an unexpected, welcome twist, that focus was ultimately much more valuable than any class focusing on the details of the “what and why” around sustainability.  It was a reminder of how we can drive real change when we challenge ourselves to think differently. 

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing two separate presentations that highlighted the big changes that are possible when we think about whole systems and challenge ourselves to think differently.  Each relies on systems change to make bold impacts.

At Waste Management’s Sustainability Forum (wmsustainabilityforum.com), Dr. Jonathan Foley, CEO of Project Drawdown turned the gloom and doom of climate change on its head by encouraging us to see the opportunity we have to change the world for the better, as we tackle climate change using the many solutions that we already have available to us.  He spoke about the multiple benefits of educating women, reducing wasted food, using renewable energy, and the interconnected global impacts of moving toward a more plant-based diet.  He presented plenty of facts about the sources of carbon emissions. But instead of focusing on the dangers of climate change, he spoke of our opportunity for a fresh start, starting today.  We have the tools to make changes now that will stop global warming. 

Dr. Foley ended with a reminder that Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous quote was “I have a dream” – not “I have a nightmare.”  He spoke of promise and hope– and called upon those listening to rise up and create a better future. In other words:  How might we?  How might we change the future to not just solve one problem but to make the world even better than it is today?  By solving some of the world’s most important environmental challenges, we also benefit from improving equally important social issues at the same time.  Dr. Foley and Project Drawdown are tackling climate change by thinking differently about the many ways we can have a positive impact now.

The next day, in a very different context, I listened to a presentation about several groups of companies that are working together to solve big problems for their respective industries. These are global companies that compete fiercely with each other every day, but they realized that their environmental challenges were bigger than they could solve individually.  They agreed to work collaboratively, asking bigger questions about “how can we do things differently?

The systems design process they described during this session relied on the same principles we apply in sustainability efforts.  Using a systematic process, the companies deconstructed their supply chain and considered alternative perspectives before identifying possible new solutions for product design for their industries. 

I was particularly excited about their approach to product design, since the recycling industry is likely to benefit from these efforts taking place in other parts of the supply chain.  These companies took ownership of a problem, then acted boldly to create new solutions with bigger, broader benefits beyond their own companies or their individual environmental goals. 

The waste and recycling industry can learn from this type of systems thinking. Are we solving for the right problems? Do we need to reframe problems in order to look at solutions differently to effect change?  Are we considering the broader Environmental-Social-Governance issues that we know are so important to the healthy future of our businesses?

As we think about our industry’s role in tackling climate change, it is important that we identify opportunities that deliver great and far-reaching impact, then use systems thinking to ensure that we are making a real, sustainable difference. Starting today.

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