01.07.2012 Sustainability

Customising Sustainability

Sustainability needs a personal framework to make our goals achievable, suggests Mark C. Coleman

For all of the boldness, bumps, bruises, and beauty enveloped in the word sustainability, it remains one of the most misunderstood concepts that have evolved out of more than 40 years of environmental affairs and social action. I have my own personal opinion on how to define and approach sustainability, and, sharing this point of view with others has become a personal passion.

My wife Aileen has been an incredible supporter, advocate, and critical thinker in the evolution of my first book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW! and development as a communicator. She recently brought a word into my vocabulary that I had previously heard, but never spent much time thinking about. The word, "bespoke", she pointed out, is a reference to the customisation and personalisation of a product or service toward one's personal preferences. The term is often used in the fashion industry relative to "made-to-measure" tailored clothing, like men's suits. One of the book's themes is how individual consumers and citizens can take action to simplify sustainability and become more accountable to their and future generations needs by modifying behaviors that may be unsustainable. Knowing this, Aileen questioned, as the current generation of consumers seek out more bespoke products and services (think of iPhone Apps, the customisation that goes into Facebook and webpages, the focus on the "you" in marketing and media, and so on), what impact will this in vogue trend on customising a lifestyle have on sustainability?

I thought Aileen's observation was brilliant. First, she did something that my book attempts to challenge its readers to do: look inward into your life and begin to critically think about your beliefs, behaviours, and actions in the context of finding balance and resolve toward living a more sustainable lifestyle. By leaving the definition of sustainability in the hands of empowered citizens, more people will, in theory, be willing to take action. This may not work in all circumstances, but an empowered and accountable citizenry and workforce is a good starting place. Minimally, an engaged citizenry will be more aware, adaptable, and open to conversation and discussion about the choices they and others in their peer network make.

The fact that Aileen made the leap between how a simple word, bespoke, was beginning to infiltrate the current state of American culture, and extrapolate from that what impact it might have on our generational impact on sustainability, represents the type of informed questioning individuals need to ask of themselves and others for this generation to become more sustainable.

Second, Aileen's observation on the use, fashion, and cultural realities of the word bespoke in the context of sustainability is incredibly relevant and timely to the current state of affairs in society. In our free market economy, bespoke makes pure sense. The advent of Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, and other social media has magnified the individualistic underbelly of society. Whether we seek attention, validation, or recognition, it seems it is almost human nature to have a "bespoke tendency" in how we choose to live. If the late 1990s and 2000s saw a height of consumerism in America, then the next wave of "bigger, better, best" really is a customised lifestyle, a one and only look and style that sets us apart from the norm.

The questions we need to ask ourselves continuously include: "What are the social, environmental, and economic impacts of a bespoke generation?", "Are the behaviours of a bespoke generation a good or bad influence on sustainability?", and "How can a sense of critical thinking and balance be brought to a bespoke generation which is so focused on how it looks, being unique, and trying to stand for something?"

Customise Sustainability in your Life
A bespoke society may not be all that bad toward engaging a sustainability generation to accelerate more balanced choices, behaviours, and actions. But without self control, personal reflection and accountability, a bespoke society could yield an inefficient consumption of resources and unsustainable outcomes. If sustainability is customised to an individual, it is made personal and actionable. But, if in that approach individuals become so bespoke that efficiencies and scale cannot be achieved, we might not realise the true potential and benefits we seek individually (or as a generation).

The advent of citizens taking action to customise their sustainability is the next major advancement toward becoming a more sustainable culture. Sustainability has made strides through the collective regulations and policies of government and products and services of business. Yet much remains to be accomplished. Sustainability is not a new zoning ordinance prohibiting oil and gas drilling, or a more fuel efficient vehicle. These are policy and technical outputs and outcomes of a sustainability generation in action. Rather, sustainability is much like the word bespoke. It is a way of being, a customisation of values, beliefs, and actions around the context by which one is living one's life.

Sustainability is not static; it changes as people grow, as life changes, and as humans interact with the natural world and our human built environment. Business sustainability is bringing the world new exciting innovations in products and services that provide greater choice for consumers to make informed and wise decisions regarding their consumption of goods.

But living a balanced life that takes into account many trade-offs requires many more options than those which are enveloped in just one product or service. For example, there is greater choice in alternative fueled vehicles, more energy efficient home appliances, and Fair Trade and organically grown coffees. These products are addressing critical natural resource and social challenges involving energy, water, materials availability, and fair wages. The value of these new innovations and options to society should not be understated. Individually, these new product options represent key aspects of lifestyle: transport, entertainment, cooking, eating and relaxation. Living a sustainable lifestyle goes beyond the here-and-now turnkey options pushing us to buy more products to consume less resources.

A sustainable lifestyle requires a long term commitment from oneself: to continuously monitor, assess, and take action on your values, beliefs, and behaviours as they relate to the goals you have for incorporating sustainability within your life including the pursuit of balance, meaning and happiness. Buying more stuff, whether it is more - or less - efficient, is still buying more stuff. The building blocks of everything we consume come from nature - too often we are removed from that point. Some resources are renewable, others are not. Exercising wise use and restraint in our consumptive behaviours, and making the most logical choices that align with our personal values, is part of our personal accountability to this and future generations. As long as a conscious filter in our consumptive behaviours exists, and personal accountability is present, sustainable outcomes can be achieved.

Sustainability is also represented by our ability to be adaptable, resilient, forgiving, and accepting. These traits allow us to change ourselves, and be accepting when others change around us. They are essential traits to master for living a life of balance and resolve. Sustainability also requires critical thinking, innovation and enlightenment. These traits are fostered best by subduing the ego-driven mind so that the subconscious "self" can have room to breathe, reflect, and emerge. Sustainability is self defined and then magnified and played out in greater society. It is a personal reflection of values and ideals put to action by left-and-right brain thought, and anchored by an ability to be present and conscious in our behaviours and when making decisions.

Choose your Future
The earth is a dynamic living system. Not that it needs more stress, but add seven billion people to the equation and the planet feels less vast. When it comes to environmental affairs, social justice and the pursuit of a well balanced, healthy, and happy life, we are our own worst enemies.

To achieve sustainability throughout society we must do many things extremely well. We need to transform our educational system, we need to be more innovative, we need to be more conscious and present, and we need to be accountable to our actions and inactions. We are imperfect, but we have the capacity to learn, improve, and ultimately perfect our relationships, our behaviours, and our life context.

As the global context in which we live changes, challenges and opportunities will confront us. We can only postulate and forecast what the world will be like in 40 years from now. It is estimated that more than three million people move from rural areas to urban centres per week worldwide. Further, it is estimated that 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, compared to less than 30% in 1950. And the global population is anticipated to reach nine billion people by 2050, two billion more than today. Some researchers believe population will peak around 2050, and trends suggest population growth is declining, although there are dramatic regional differences in growth rates.

Regardless, more people will be competing for a fixed supply of natural resources across the next four decades. Factor in the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment regarding the challenges that exist in life-essential critical ecosystems, and a myriad of other socio-economic, geo-political, climate change, natural disaster, and natural resource availability indicators, and the future begins to look very overwhelming. Let's not sugarcoat it - the future is overwhelming.

We recognise now that there are natural limits and constraints to unfettered and unsustainable growth. Forecasts and predictions by world-class research organisations, corporations, governments, and individual scientists and researchers are beginning to coalesce. A convergence is happening in society, business, government, politics, and among the citizenry of the world. This convergence reflects the idea that to address the challenges of the next generation, this generation needs to be more collaborative, integrated, innovative, and accountable. The Occupy Wall Street and other global protests of the past year are signals of a bespoke generation trying to find its balance and voice. The convergence can seem convoluted at times, as ideas and passion collide with fear and constraint.

But take a step back, and at the center of the chaotic swirling storm there is calm. The calm comes from a variety of hopeful and opportunistic leaders, and from everyday citizens choosing to accept change and work toward creating a more sustainable world. If viewed as a mathematical equation, the common denominator that will result in a more balanced, fulfilling, and sustainable lifestyle for individuals, and world for this generation is . . . us. Too often we look to external sources of fault as we reason our way through the chaos. But eventually this is fleeting and destructive. Change begins with us, as consumers, parents, working professionals, and citizens. The gift we have is life in and of itself. What we do with, and how we choose to use that gift is our ultimate challenge to reconcile within and among ourselves.

In the past three years I have interviewed dozens of people who have dedicated their career to creating positive change in themselves and within the organisations they work for, and in most cases led. One of the common traits among those leading change is what I would call a certain amount of "truth speaking". In retrospect, many Chief Sustainability Officers for Fortune 500 companies, for high growth clean technology companies, and for government agencies are really Chief Innovation and Chief Logic officers for their organisations. These individuals represent an antenna, sensing the trends occurring in the external world, a coffee kiosk to the internal organisation for sharing and vetting ideas, and an analytical force to make sense of converging ideas, opportunities, enterprise risks, and market forces. As truth tellers, these individuals choose to use their strengths in communication, leadership, and trends analysis to provide an objective point of view on the state of the organisation and within the current context of the marketplace and world. From there, these leaders engage and empower the organisation to set forth sustainability goals and strategies that are bespoke to the culture, values, and vision of the organisation.

How many of us fulfil these roles in our own life? What if we did more truth telling in our personal life and toward our individual journey of discovery, growth, and fulfillment? To be viewed by others as an in vogue, bespoke individual, we can choose to focus our attention on the minutia of the day's decisions, consumer trends and behaviours that we feel are important to our self worth. But a truly bespoke lifestyle is one that balances our desire for being consequential in the here-and-now with a long term perspective on how we will have influence, and how we will be remembered by our actions today, and into the future.

About the Author

This article by Mark Coleman is extracted from his upcoming book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW! to be published by SelectBooks, Inc., New York in October 2012.

Throughout his career Mark Coleman has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment and sustainability. His career has spanned strategic and leadership positions in government, applied research, technology development, and management consulting organisations. This rich and diverse experience has enabled Mr Coleman to have access to, engage, and work with a broad range of regional, national, and international leaders on the subject of sustainability.

Mark C Coleman

Throughout a corporate career Mark Coleman has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment and sustainability. He is the author of The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!