Unifying Framework for Sustainability

By: Barrett C. Brown

"We are not unlike a particularly hardy crustacean....With each passage from one stage of human growth to the next we, too, must shed a protective structure. We are left exposed and vulnerable, but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn't known before." – Gail Sheehy

We’re engaged in an interesting and potentially high-impact project to help architect a Unifying Framework for Sustainability. It is part of a larger initiative called One Future…One Planet. The essence of the unifying framework project is to bring together leading developers and users of sustainability frameworks (e.g., The Natural Step, Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry) and craft an integrated lens that would support large-scale, mainstream application of sustainability across all sectors.

What’s a framework, really? Hunter Lovins, from Natural Capitalism Solutions, had my favorite answer: “I define a framework as an intellectual system that defines what sustainability is, sets forth a strategy for achieving it, is based on a set of principles, and is useful across multiple organizations, cultures, and actors. A tool is an approach to achieve a particular limited outcome in service to that framework, to be used in a specific situation.”

The bottom line is that sustainability isn’t catching on like wildfire. Well over 99% of the business processes and organizational processes in the world are not grounded in sustainability principles and are not supporting the development of a flourishing human society and thriving natural world. The 20 years since Rio and 40 years since Stockholm have seen significant progress on the sustainability front, but the scale of true change needed is staggering. I’ve recently been in bush villages in Côte d’Ivoire and favelas in Brazil, and the poverty and structural degradation of society is horrifying. I’ve talked with some extremely sophisticated corporate leaders who are advancing sustainability, but the vast majority of SMEs are too busy or too resource strapped to make the shifts required.

One approach we want to take is to go back to the drawing board on how sustainability is framed and communicated. Brilliant thinkers and practitioners like Walter Stahel, Hunter and Amory Lovins, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, Janine Benyus, Paul Hawken, Alan Savory, Gunter Pauli, Gil Friend, Bob Willard, and countless others have brought tremendous intellectual horsepower and emotional commitment to this topic. While there are many frameworks out there that have truly made a difference, they aren’t particularly well aligned amongst themselves, there is confusion in the marketplace around which to use, and sustainability isn’t scaling as fast as it needs to. Maybe, to quote Marshall Goldsmith, what got us here won’t get us there. It’s time to reflect and innovate.

This unifying framework for sustainability would be an overarching, global lens through which all sustainability related initiatives would be viewed. It would integrate the many existing sustainabilities and be grounded in a set of universally applied principles. Ultimately, it would be adapted to different domains, with variations including context-specific principles and metrics. This framework, or lens, is not intended to displace existing sustainability frameworks and tools. Rather, it will fit them into a broader lens and provide clearer direction for the many people making decisions about sustainability.

This project is nascent, but already it is garnering support worldwide from a broad swath of thought leaders and organizations. We’ve heard expressions of interest and a recognition of need for this from Sustainability Hall of Famers Karl-Henrik Robèrt and Gil Friend. In fact, the former launched the whole idea. Given that Kalle founded The Natural Step, it is an honorable and impressive move that he’s paving the way for a new framework to arise that might transcend and include all of the incredible work they’ve done with TNS. Subsequent to Kalle’s invitation, the TNS network of approximately 1,000 sustainability practitioners submitted the proposal of a Unifying Framework for Sustainable Development in Rio+20 inputs for Draft Zero. They proposed principles that address a holistic, equitable and far-sighted approach to decision-making at all levels.

Hunter Lovins – in her true to nature style – expressed some strong skepticism about whether a new framework could be collaboratively built and get large-scale traction, yet at the same time acknowledged that we’ve got to be taking a different approach if we are to reach a tipping point. Hunter suggested we try to pull in Ogilvy or another top advertising agency to make it truly “sticky” and powerful in its communication, which is a great idea. Hunter has also offered her organization – Natural Capitalism Solutions – as the institutional non-profit home for it, to support raising the necessary funding, and we’ve decided to take her up on it.

Karen O’Brien, one of the lead authors of the last report from the IPCC is also on board and sees the need as well. A number of significant organizations have expressed interest, a couple of which are willing to develop MOUs around it, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Trade Centre in Geneva. The Swedish Foreign Ministry, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and potentially some major industry groups in Brazil have also expressed interest, although haven’t made formal commitments.

I flew to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in March to discuss the idea with their climate change and sustainability team. They see the need for a stronger framework to support their work to build a low-carbon economy in Latin America, although it’s not clear whether this unifying framework would be part of that puzzle. Time will tell.

Anyway, stay tuned for more on this project. Step by step we are moving it forward. By the way, I’ll be in Rio+20 for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, hope to see some of you there.

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