By Estela Pilz

We know sustainability is a hot topic at the moment. We have heard statistics like “79% of millennial employees are loyal to companies that care about their effect on society”. But to seize this opportunity, and consolidate himself in this new scene, one might ask “how can my company become more sustainable?” And the good news is, there is no single answer because sustainability is a complex concept. You might think this a bad thing, but I’ll show you how this can be an opportunity.

Sustainability includes ecological, economic and social dimensions, which further involves several other aspects that are also interrelated, such as cultural, health and political matters. Wow, this sounds difficult, I know. But we need to master this art. Whether this is because of your ethical drive, or because you want to grab a market opportunity, the ability to navigate sustainability is an upcoming requirement of the market.

Given the complexity of sustainability, systems thinking is a good way to address and understand it. One reason is that understanding how systems work – and how we play a role in them – let’s us function more effectively and proactively within them, instead of just being carried away by them and then react to the consequences. In fact, it’s been said that systems thinking is one of the key management competencies for the 21st century.

To explain to you in just a few words, systems thinking is about “zooming out” how we see a situation to have a bigger picture of it, giving a more wholesome idea of what our impact really is. Then we can identify the players in the system, where the leverage points are, where the opportunities stand, so then we can “zoom in” and act. When it comes to sustainability, it allows us to see the externalities of our decisions and actions. We may begin noting a negative impact we have been causing and were not aware of, and at the same time we may begin identifying levers we were not using and could push us forward towards a sustainable business.

Let me give you an example. Scandic group, a Swedish hotel chain, became a leader in sustainability in the hotel sector way back in 1993 by introducing the idea of reusing towels. It did not stop there as it continued to develop its environmental portfolio. Later on it installed custom lighting and demand-controlled ventilation systems with orientation towards greener settings, so guests could choose the temperature in their rooms. When given the simple possibility to contribute, guests usually are keen to follow the most environmentally-friendly path. Besides saving on energy, the hotel makes its guests participate in the company’s mission to protect the environment, creating awareness of the cause and positive attitude of the company. This can lead to greater customer loyalty and admiration, as well teach the guests something they can apply to their homes, broadening their positive impact past the hotel doors.

Another example can be found at the transportation industry. In recent years, many have been concerned with the burning of fossil fuel, so one can think that exchanging his gasoline-fueled car for an electric one is the perfect solution. Of course fuel-based cars emit more pollutants with its use, but we also need to acknowledge that producing a car also has its footprint of raw materials, emissions, water and energy consumption, regardless if this car is electric or fuel-based. But let’s “zoom out” and look at the whole transport scene. Does this person need to own a car in the first place? Better than owning an electric car can be not owning a car at all. However, we are only able to acknowledge this when we approach the situation with a systems thinking. Shifting perspectives and asking broader questions let us consider impact we might have not been aware of, as well as consider new options and benefit from new players, like car sharing services or even the traditional public transportation system.

And that is why I said sustainability being complex wasn’t bad news. There are many ways to approach it. There are many elements we could be tweaking to create good impact. Having more options allow us to choose which one is more suitable for the situation, business, financial ability, etc. Making your hotel guests reuse their towels might seem like a small deed, but it started a revolution in a company and in the hotel industry, it brought awareness of water usage (and waste) to staff and guests, and these people could later take this knowledge and apply to their personal lives.

Accordingly, seemingly insignificant actions, which are in many cases easy and cheap for companies to implement, can generate great positive impact when well-designed by systems thinkers, activating the right leverage points. We are constituted by systems and we constitute systems. Therefore, we must learn how to navigate it, see the links, think of the whole, and better use our leverage points*.

*Leverage points: Places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.

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