John R. Ehrenfeld on a new way to look at the sustainability vs. growth conundrum.

Ehrenfeld, author of Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, contends that the world is more unsustainable now than in 1972 in spite of the sustainability programs of firms worldwide.

In his recent post, Ehrenfeld argues that sustainability strategies and programs fail to address the fundamental causes of unsustainability, because most economies and companies still pursue growth, beyond the capacity of our planet to support it.

He says, “Ironically, the underlying goal of “sustainability” as used in this fashion is to keep growing indefinitely — assuming, as economists do, that the role of business is to provide more and more material wealth, thereby (presumably) increasing aggregate well-being. This goal has been maintained in the shadow of clear signals that this road to sustainability is self-defeating, and against evidence of growing human suffering and environmental degradation.”

Ehrenfeld questions the current definitions of sustainability, proposing that sustainability is in fact a series of questions in need of answering. “Can we sustain growth? Can we sustain our population? Can we sustain our lifestyle?”

“As currently used, sustainability refers to all of these things: growth, population, and lifestyle. There is a hidden teleology in how the word is used: just keep on innovating and growing, and life will become better and better. Given any reasonable forecast of future eco-efficiency gains, growth will have to stop, leaving us mired along the way, if we are to avoid the depletion of all ecosystems on this planet.”

“It’s clear that we have to stop growing at some point — but what point?”

Ehrenfeld and his colleague, Andrew Hoffman, argue that it is “imperative to pick something other than growth to sustain. Growth is, ultimately, a measure of quantity; we suggest instead a measure of quality. For us, that something is flourishing — a measure of the fullness of life, not some material metric. Flourishing … comes when one can say that life’s cares are being attended to — when every human being is successfully caring for themselves, other humans, and the non-human world that is vital to our maintenance.”

“This concept of sustainability as the creation and maintenance of flourishing would require the corporate world to think of its businesses in a fundamentally different way. In this model of economic interactions, business’s primary role would be to enable people to flourish — that is, take care of the world around them. Such a world would be very different from what we see today. Eco-efficiency and CSR would still be on the agenda, but the creation of flourishing would come first.”

”It’s obvious this would require radical change. Corporations’ basic strategies would move from satisfying needs (or wants) to enabling care. Sustainability practices as understood today would still be important for managers, but would be completely intertwined with and inseparable from whatever basic strategy is driving a firm… While profit would continue to be important to a firm’s success, it would take a backseat to the firm’s contribution to flourishing. ”

”Today, we are very far from the creation, much less the sustaining, of a flourishing world. Even more than the challenge of being first to market new revolutionary Internet devices will be the offering of the first products designed to enable people to care for themselves and others. When enough such offerings hit the market, then and only then will we be able to talk about sustainability and both understand and mean what we say.”

This article draws from Sustainability Redefined: Setting a Goal of a Flourishing World, by John R. Ehrenfeld (International Society for Industrial Ecology), which was published February 6, 2014 by MIT Sloan Management Review.