Challenging Sustainability Greenwishing With . . . More Greenwishing?

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July 29, 2019

LEED and sustainability - cartoon

When it comes to investment manager Duncan Austin’s new paper “Greenwish: The Wishful Thinking Undermining the Ambition of Sustainable Business,” I first want to congratulate him on inventing (as far as I can tell) the term “Greenwish.” It is a great term that offers flexibility in characterizing the wide divergence between corporate good intentions and greenwashing.  

Austin’s “Greenwish” paper is a good review of how the sustainable business community is (or is not) advancing the cause of sustainability, and why. To summarize the paper’s hypothesis:  

  1. 1
    Sustainability metrics, behaviors, and claims have exploded in recent years while the larger economic and environmental system has continued to become less sustainable.
  2. 2
    Sustainability metrics have not been successful in internalizing environmental externalities when it comes to corporate decision-making based on the profit motive.
  3. 3
    Sustainability advocates have contributed to the problem in promulgating the narrative of cost-less sustainability.
  4. 4
    Based on a systems-thinking approach, the sustainable business community should focus much more on sustainability at a systems level.   
  5. 5
    That means raising the bar for what it means to be a socially responsible company and sustainability leader. Sustainability metrics should focus less on companies’ carbon footprints and more on their policy footprints.

Duncan Austin has focused for decades on sustainability, so his conclusions deserve the attention of the sustainable business community, and indeed anyone focused on the role of business in sustainability and climate change. Here’s where you can scan or review the paper’s key points, read or download the paper itself, or watch a video analyzing the paper in considerable depth.

But as Duncan himself asks in his paper, is suggesting that the sustainable business community pivot from greenwish-based sustainability metrics to systems change-based sustainability metrics greenwishing in its own right? Indeed, discussion of sustainability greenwishing has been underway for a decade, albeit not under that title. Auden Schendler, VP for Sustainability at Aspen Ski Company, has been beating the greenwishing drum since his 2009 book Getting Green Done – Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

And the greenwishing phenomenon is by no means limited to the sustainable business community. I’ve previously hypothesized the existence of Six Business Americas, patterned on the Yale Project on Climate Communications’ Six Americas Project, with each Business America populating a different spot along the continuum from opposing to supporting climate policy and systemic change. There is a lot of greenwishing along that continuum!

Therefore, the real questions are not whether greenwishing exists, or whether it would be helpful for companies to actively promote the kind of systemic change Austin calls for. The real questions are: 1) is the desired outcome feasible?; and 2) how could we make it happen? Unless Austin’s paper catalyzes an effort to answer these two questions, it will probably end up as just another example of greenwishing. 

The good news is that there is a lot of thinking and work available to support the systems-thinking approach that is required to answer those two questions. Including:

You can begin to explore any of the listed conversations through the provided hyperlinks. The problem with all of these conversations is that they tend to occur in isolation of each other. In practice, however, they can all contribute to the systems-thinking that is needed advance Austin’s “Greenwish” hypothesis. Again, here’s where you can review, download, or dig into “Greenwish.”  

Maybe now IS the time to try and make the transition from greenwishing to sustainability!

cartoon climbing mountain of sustainability jumping off cliff

About the author 

Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

  • Thanks to Duncan Austin for his excellent statement about the failure of current sustainable business strategies. Much deeper structural changes are needed if civilization is to be saved and the environment restored.

    Primary among these are:
    1. The decentralization of the allocation and control of credit away from the banking cartel and toward independent credit clearing associations. This will make credit more readily available to smaller scale, community based, and environmentally responsible enterprises.
    2. Elimination of the growth imperative that derives from the compound interest that is built into the debt-based centrally controlled money system. Interest-free exchange mechanisms are available and already operating. These only need to be optimized and scaled up.
    3. Likewise a shift from debt financing to equity financing is imperative to put an end to debt bondage and give everyone an ownership stake in the economy.
    4. Further, the “corporate beast” must be tamed by eliminating or drastically curtailing the limited liability privilege of corporations, and preventing the domination of markets by monopolies and oligopolies.

    These will seem like radical proposals in contrast to longstanding economic and financial dogmas, but they are nevertheless necessary. I don’t see any current political path toward enabling these necessary changes, so the burden to bring them about falls to visionary social, economic and financial innovators to create new structures alongside the disintegrating establishment, new structures that are scalable and sufficiently robust to eventually displace the old ways of the “caterpillar” economy with the sustainable and regenerative ways of the new “butterfly” economy.

    I don’t expect the transition to be a smooth one, so buckle your seat belts ‘cause it’s going to be a very rough ride.
    Thomas H. Greco, Jr.

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