Sustainability: How to get from here to there (part two)

Hope is different than optimism.

Optimism springs from confidence based on a technical assessment that you’re doing things that have worked in the past and thus you can rationally say, “This is going to work.”

Hope is a belief in the rightness of what you’re doing, regardless of the technical assessment.

In Vaclav Havel’s words, it is “the certainty that something makes sense.” Christopher Lasch says, “Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it.” David Orr adds, “Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

When faced with the problems of our day, I’m often asked if I am hopeful. My answer is yes. We have the power to change things as we pursue a vision for a hopeful world. What does it look like? That is for each of you to decide for yourselves and to pursue in your own way. I challenge you to find your calling or purpose—not just what you want to be but what were you meant to be.

We need to wake up to the awesome power of business, and the awesome responsibility of leaders. They have the power to bring the world towards sustainability or towards ruin. Find a purpose in creating sustainable outcomes. If you don’t, if we all don’t set a personal vision of how we are going to leave the world a little better, then I believe we are all doomed. We need leaders who are driven by a sense of purpose, one that includes a willingness to roll up their sleeves and solve the real problems of our day.

The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

According to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “Humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period.” We have increased species extinction rates by up to 1,000 times over rates typical for Earth’s history.

Almost 25 percent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44 percent are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases. And these impacts are not evenly distributed. The richest 20 percent consume over 75 percent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 percent consume just 1.5 percent.

Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world, almost 60 percent lack access to safe sewers, 33 percent have no access to clean water, 25 percent lack adequate housing, and 30 percent have no modern health services. The richest three people have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the 48 least developed countries.

But there are reasons to be hopeful

The solutions to these problems must come from business—sustainable business. You can now work on sustainability strategies, sustainable products and operations, sustainability reports, and strive to become chief sustainability officers. But the solutions to the root problems go deep to the complexity of our economy and society.

On that front, I also see signs of hope that we are changing the way we think.

The business world is in flux in some radical ways. We now live in a world where a 22-year-old part time nanny can start an online petition of 300,000 signatures and force the Bank of America to cancel plans to charge debit card users a $5 monthly fee.

Patagonia can start an exchange and ask its consumer to buy their products used on eBay before coming to the store to buy new.

And the CEO of Unilever, Paul Pollman, can say that we need to think on longer time frames, that the concept of shareholder value has passed its “sell-by date” and that the company will no longer provide quarterly profit updates to shareholders. And that’s mild. He has also said that hedge fund managers would “sell their own grandmothers if they thought they could make a profit” and that “we are entering a time when the responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians.”

This is radical stuff!


Sustainability requires that we change how we conceive of ourselves as people, not merely as consumers that are defined by what we possess and what we buy, but as people, defined by who we are and what we believe, and how we love the world around us, both human and natural.

In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “We must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

We need profound cultural change to create a sustainable world. We need people who will think deeply, work diligently and never give up. We need those people in all sectors of society—people with the persistence to push forward, keep trying, and find the answers.

As you advance in your path to create the legacy, when you get discouraged recall these words by Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Like a stonemason who has to hit a stone 100 times before it breaks. It is not the 100th hammer strike that breaks the stone. It is the 99 before it. To make that 100th strike with the hammer requires hope.

Take your time here to build your hope, find your calling, discover your vocation, and create your vision for your part in building a sustainable world. Be different, think differently, live by the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw: “Some people see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”


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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