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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sep/Oct 2005 : Innovation


From Incrementalism to Leadership

by Gil Friend

The sustainable business phenomenon is taking deeper root. Just look at the business response to global warming presented in Business Week's cover story a year ago, for example, or General Electric's “Ecomagination” launch last spring.

But many of us who have been laboring in the vineyards for the past few decades have been wondering if there's a fundamental problem remaining: All too much of the effort from business, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has focused on mitigating the problem; making things “less bad”; slowing the rate of decline of the regenerative capacity of the living systems that sustain human culture and economy.

That's not good enough to win the race to sustainability—and move beyond. Let’s face it: Incrementalism didn't get us to the moon.

Bill McDonough offers the simple and compelling metaphor of slowing down a car that's going in the wrong direction, instead of turning it around. Frank Dixon of Innovest Strategic Value Advisors has been calling for raising the bar from “corporate social responsibility” to “total corporate responsibility—focused on promoting system changes that hold firms fully responsible.” John Ehrenfeld, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and industrial ecology leader, questions the conventional approach to sustainable development: “Creating true sustainability,” he argues in a recent Society for Organizational Learning journal article, “requires radical solutions, not quick fixes, (beginning) by examining our own behaviors and assumptions regarding consumption, personal satisfaction and technology.”

“Sustainable Business: A Declaration of Leadership” is my current contribution to that discussion. Commissioned by the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA), and guided by the new California Sustainable Business Council, it's intentionally both spare and provocative. (Something also in process with ACWMA support is a robust “sustainable business rating system”—but more on that later.)

This declaration challenges already-good companies, developers, designers and public authorities to even higher levels of thinking, aspiration and performance—to move beyond slowing our decline, and to invent and implement the ways to win the race to sustain- ability.

Every phrase in the declaration could be further explained, justified, specified and exampled. But those details aren’t what we've lacked. We've lacked the will to face reality, tell the truth about what we see and do what we know needs to be done.

I hope this declaration will stimulate fruitful discussions about whether your company is taking the challenge and the opportunity seriously and creatively enough.

Download Sustainable Business: A Declaration of Leadership
(in PDF Format)

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc., which offers advisory services and tools that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise. He encourages people’s comments and suggestions at leadership@

You can download a free PDF of the “Sustainable Business: A Declaration of Leadership” poster, or purchase an 11x17 full-color version (printed on 100-percent-recycled-content) at

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