The Anatomy of a Sustainable solution

Define sustainability. What would it be? Since the term broke the mainstream barrier, it’s become the go-to term for marketing executives, the rally cry for environmentalists and an expletive for conservative politicians. When sustainability embodies such a multitude of meanings, how can the concept guide us toward better solutions?

In 2009, a book titled “Strategy for Sustainability – A Business Manifesto” was published by Harvard Business Press. In it, author Adam Werbach spends pages defining sustainability. To Werbach, sustainability isn’t about just environmentalism or human rights or local economies; it’s about perpetually balancing all pressures equally (I think he’s right). To steal an example from the book, let’s talk carbon emissions:

A green strategy to reduce carbon emissions could be making gasoline very expensive, and thus limiting CO2 emissions from cars. If a fill up cost $10 a gallon, we’d likely see fewer drivers on the road. But this plan has negative consequences; millions of people couldn’t afford to go to work anymore, economies would struggle with added expenses, and it would disproportionately affect the poor. In the end, the strategy isn’t sustainable.

Contrast that idea with developing renewable energy which is cheaper than coal and gasoline. Doing so would also lower carbon emissions. The plan would also lower business costs, increase the quality of life for millions, and lay the ground work for future innovations. That’s sustainable.

Sustainability Is Sexy has taken this same way of thinking to the coffee cup world, and it’s worked. But could this same way of finding a solution work elsewhere?

A follower recently shared an article with me called “Please Kill the Paper Receipt”. The article outlines the waste and environmental impact of the habit we all have. Paper receipts consume a lot of natural resources like trees, require petroleum, and emit carbon. But is killing the receipt a sustainable solution? I don’t think so. Receipts are integrated into daily life. Businesses rely on them for transactions, like returned merchandise, and the IRS requires receipts for taxes. A lot of people still rely on receipts as a tangible form of economic protection against fraud (think of your Aunt with the stuffed filing cabinet and label maker). Even though paper receipts may have an environmental cost, they also have social, cultural, and economic benefits. None of these benefits are deal breakers when it comes to a solution for paper receipts, but they do need to be considered. Whatever solution replaces the paper receipt will have to take all those perspectives into account to be sustainable.

Participate in a quick poll and share your thoughts on paper receipts hosted over at Don Forne’s Retail Software Website. And for those passionate about morphing sustainability from a concept into action, do check out Strategy for Sustainability. It’s highly recommended from our corner.