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Sustainability 2.0: Flourishing

4/24/2013 --

Ross Professor Andrew Hoffman's new book challenges current thinking about consumption and the meaning of sustainability.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sustainability, once thought to be the province of scientists and environmentalists, is now a mainstream business strategy.

But for people like Andrew Hoffman, professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, it's not cause for victory. He fought the early battles to get environmental responsibility into the C-suites, and the initiatives he's observed don't align with sustainability's original intentions.

That's because the way business has translated sustainability — a policy of mitigation, or doing less harm — doesn't reflect the goals of Hoffman and his mentor, retired MIT Professor John R. Ehrenfeld. It's not enough to reverse problems like climate change, water scarcity, and income inequality to set future generations up for success.

Their new book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability (Stanford University Press) deals with what sustainability should be, compared with what it's become.

"Right now, sustainability means everything to everybody, and therefore it means nothing at all," says Hoffman, the Holcim (U.S.) Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. "It hasn't really changed the way we consume, use resources, and acquire things to make ourselves feel good about who we are based on what we own. Most of the efforts out there now, especially in the business world, are about reducing unsustainability. That's a fundamentally different idea than creating sustainability."

The book is a conversation between Hoffman and Ehrenfeld. The former MIT professor was a pioneer in the field of business sustainability. He saw the strategic implications for business long before others, and that made a big impression on Hoffman when he was a graduate student at MIT.

"He was the only game in town on this issue when I was a student, and he really changed the face of business sustainability education," Hoffman says.

In the book, the two discuss the more expansive idea of flourishing as an amendment to the idea of sustainability. Through their conversation, they argue that sustainability implies a status quo or equilibrium. But flourishing is a more dynamic idea that means thriving.

"It's an intriguing, positive idea and word," Hoffman says. "The field of Positive Organizational Scholarship is a cornerstone at Ross, and it talks a lot about flourishing — at work and in life — and we're connecting that idea to how humans relate to the Earth."

Hoffman and Ehrenfeld don't pull punches on the shortcomings of business sustainability efforts or social norms of consumer consumption. If that makes people feel uncomfortable, that's the idea.

"I hope people who read this come out of it a little annoyed and challenged," Hoffman says. "We're not going to be able to solve the issues we face by doing what we do now. Sustainability is in the business mainstream, but before that happened, those of us that were championing the idea were considered annoying. But we now think that mainstream sustainability missed the mark. So those of us in this field need to go back to being annoying and making people uncomfortable again."

For example, Hoffman and Ehrenfeld see business and society waiting for technology to come to the rescue.

"Sustainability isn't about a new kind of light bulb, windmill, or hybrid car," he says. "In fact, those kinds of innovations fool us into thinking we're solving the problem. People want technology to come along and save the day so they don't have to change their beliefs or behavior. We still achieve status and self-worth by consuming more and bigger things. Unless we can toggle back those deep cultural issues, the rest is window dressing."

The book's discussion also delves into political and religious beliefs and how those affect the way people and corporations view climate change. Hoffman has studied the social side of the climate change debate, and has long urged scientists to consider and address the social implications of their conclusions.

On their views for the future, Hoffman and Ehrenfeld separate the ideas of optimism and hope. Their discussion ends with a pessimistic but hopeful tone, which might sound like a contradiction but is not.

"Optimism or pessimism is where you look at the odds, do a calculation, and think things are going to work or not work out," Hoffman says. "Hope is a faith that things will work out regardless of the odds. I like David Orr's quote, 'Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.' We talk about the idea of being pessimistic and hopeful. I'm hopeful because increasing numbers of young people, even young evangelicals, look at sustainability and want to work on it. Having enough dedicated people working to make a difference is what gives you hope, and I see that with students today."

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— Terry Kosdrosky



For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502, terrykos@umich.edu