Thought Leadership

Introduction to Sustainability

It’s surprising how a new focus can change the way you view the world.  I recently took up a leadership role to develop and implement sustainability as a transformational component of organisational growth and development. In researching sustainability and working through an internal discovery phase I’ve realised that most people hold a generalist view on sustainability loosely based around the environment.  In the sustainability world, this is just one component of a complex and highly integrated topic that potentially shapes every individual and organisation.

From a personal perspective, my recent good fortune in travelling to the French Alps and then Madagascar took on a different persuasion as a result of this interest in sustainability.  A strange combination of holiday destinations but that’s another story.

Tony McCartney - Introduction to Sustainability

Climbing in the French/Italian Alps is an exhilarating experience for a first-time mountaineer.  The spectacular scenery and alpine atmosphere build a sense of security in regard to your own safety and ability.  In order to survive the experience however you need to provision to sustain yourself in a difficult and challenging environment.  This entails preparation, planning, suitable clothing and reliable equipment; key inputs to this specialist endeavor.  More importantly, however, are the specialist skills and knowledge necessary to survive in this challenging environment.  And finally to summit you need to sustain your personal will power to push on in the face of cold, low oxygen and wind.  Even though we only mastered a small peak the achievement against these challenges was a real adrenaline rush. 

Tony McCartney - Introduction to Sustainability

At the other end of the sustainability continuum is Madagascar.  During 10 days on the island, we visited the central, east and north and saw surprisingly varied natural and social environments.  The general impression is one of subsistence living where most people seem to survive by trading whatever is to hand.  The sustainability challenge came from the fact that the majority of natural forest in the areas we visited had been cut down and used for charcoal preparation and house construction.  To overcome the limited wood supply they began planting eucalyptus trees to provide a continuous supply (coppicing); seems like a good sustainable solution.  However, there are increasing areas of forest needed to support the subsistence lifestyles and little apparent effort in addressing the broader economic and social sustainability needs of the population.  The environmental and economic sustainability challenge is how do you limit the impact on air quality while maintaining a viable lifestyle for the population.  Not an easy solution.

Highlighting these two examples demonstrates the broad spectrum of sustainability issues and demonstrates and that in tackling sustainability one often has to address the nexus between individual and group perspectives.  Managing these complex and sometimes opposing views requires a clear understanding of what you can achieve and an ability to compromise and adapt to what is a dynamic problem.  In other words, you need a framework that captures the hearts of individuals but provides the discipline and structure to focus the effort.  More on that next time.