Sustainability: How do we get from here to there

When we go into a company and try to change its sustainability strategy, we are working from a personal theory of change that reflects how we see the world and how we engage with it. It defines who we are and how we accomplish our life’s work.

And in many ways it defines what we will become. As Heraclitus said, “character is destiny.”

E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, wrote, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.” This represents a universal tension. We are part of the world, and yet we want to change it, push it in new directions. This is a hard balance to strike. This is not a contest of us versus them—we are all in this together.

Yet people often think about environmental problems with an us-versus-the framework. For example, I often hear it stated that we are addicted to fossil fuels. But I have trouble with that metaphor. Addiction is an illness that is an aberration from healthy living. But on the issues of sustainability and climate change, we are all faced with the same challenge. In a sense, we are all addicts with the same malady, and there are no healthy people to gauge our behavior or doctors to cure us.

I think of the proper metaphor as one of a collective of people who are lost on a terrain they thought they knew but has now somehow changed. We may have had bad maps all along, but now we really don’t know where to go. In defining a theory of change, what we need are leaders who have a vision of the direction we might go, while recognizing that they are a part of the world that it is lost.

Three Parts to a Theory of Change
A theory of change has three parts:

1. A statement of the current reality. What kind of world do you see? As an example, over the past months the stock market has been reaching new heights. Is that the world you see? Or do you also recognize that unemployment remains frustratingly static and income inequality is widening?

Do you see that sustainability is now mainstreaming, and yet many of our sustainability concerns continue to worsen: carbon dioxide levels will soon pass the critical threshold of 400 ppm; man-made chemicals permeate our environment; and there are measurable levels of ibuprofen in the Mediterranean Sea.

What kind of world do you see?

I see a world in which we have now entered the Anthropocene—a geological epoch in which humans act as a force within the natural environment. We have taken a role in the operation of many of the Earth’s systems. From now on, we are forever linked.

This is a shift in how we think about ourselves, how we think about the role of business, and how we think about business education. It will be difficult to change these ways of thinking, but we have to do this hard work. Heed the warning of John F. Kennedy: “All too often, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

2. A vision of a desired future. What kind of future do you see and what kind of world do you want to create? Where do you want to take us? What possibilities and opportunities for a bright future do you see? I challenge you to see a future that is optimistic, attractive, and one that includes a life of meaning, security, prosperity and happiness. That is a future vision that people will want to join you in striving for.

We have no shortage of cynics today—and environmentalists tend to focus too much on the negative. The negative does not motivate people to follow a leader. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not have a nightmare but rather a dream. Leaders inspire people to action by creating a vision of a desirable future that they want, not by scaring them away from a past they don’t. We need more visionaries who can see a way forward. What future do you see? Think about it. This will be the goal of your life’s work.

3. A path to get from one to the other. What path will take you from one to the other? I hope that we will reject all black-and-white, binary statements of the problems we face. This lazy thinking is too much in vogue. It is far too easy to proclaim that we have the truth and that others are not only wrong but also evil. If you attach yourself to a particular position exclusively and disbelieve all the rest, you’ll likely lose much good and fail to recognize the real truth of the matter.

The answers to today’s sustainability problems do not reside in one discipline or one worldview. We need to work for the elusive middle way by understanding all sides and views of the issues we care about; not passing judgment easily, but instead seeing the complex fabric and the complex solutions – with a tolerance and compassion.

We need to speak to and work with all kinds of people to find a common solution to our common problems. There is no other way. Dogmatism and absolutism will not get us there. Tolerance, compassion, and understanding will.

To lead people to a place they need to go, and may be rightly afraid to go, you can’t just know the right thing to do. You need to feel it deeply enough to care and devote your life to it. You have to feel it to believe it. If you don’t believe it, you will never get where you seek to go, and you certainly won’t convince others to go there.

E.B. White continued: “But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way savoring must come first.” As you strive to change the world and make it more sustainable, also love, cherish and savor it. You need to act with hope.

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series by the author on "Sustainability: How to get from here to there."


Dr. Andrew (Andy) Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute. In his research, Hoffman uses organizational, network and strategic analyses to assess the implications of environmental issues for business. Prior to academics, he worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Metcalf & Eddy Environmental Consultants, T&T Construction & Design, and the Amoco Corporation. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling (Greenleaf Publishing, 2016). Hoffman holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an S.M. in civil & environmental engineering from M.I.T., and a Ph.D. in management and civil & environmental engineering from M.I.T. For additional information, follow him on Twitter @HoffmanAndy and visit his website at

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The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Source: Hoffman, A. (2015) “Sustainability: How to get from here to there,” Leadership Excellence Essentials, March, 15-16.

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