Motown and the Holy Grail of Sustainability

Just like me,you might feel the need to occasionally pop on some Motown while reading HBR or the Economist. No need to explain, I get it. Sometimes it’s just comforting to pretend that Smokey Robinson is your homie, gently guiding me through life’s quandaries as you simultaneously imagine trekking the slopes of your Peruvian co-op. It’s a passive form of support, but once in a blue moon, the spirit of James Brown delivers unto us insight. For me, that moment was last week while I was reading about our society’s growing trash problem and listening to Barry White. Specifically, while reading an article from the Economist which dealt with trying to change our pattern of consumption, Barry spoke to me.

What Barry said to me was this 

Want to, but I can’t help it
I love the way it feels,
It’s got me stuck between my fantasy and what is real
I need it when I want it, I want it when I don’t
Tell myself I’ll stop everyday, knowin’ that I won’t

I think what Barry was trying to remind me was that people are people. It’s in our nature to want the double cheeseburger instead of the single, to want the iPad 3 (the New iPad?) even though we just dropped $300 for the iPad 2 6 months ago, to throw that can of soda away instead of lugging the trash around for an hour until we can recycle it at home. We, being rational actors, go about our business every day seeking to maximize benefits and minimize costs.

Alright Barry, cool, but what does that have to do with sustainability? Well, the problem with being rational actors and striving for sustainability, is that people aren’t particularly good at calculating the true cost of our choices. These are the so-called negative externalities, costs incurred by a third party that aren’t taken into account during the transaction. Ex. the price of the new iPad doesn’t include the cost that is incurred when that iPad is land-filled and it’s batteries leach into the water-table. It is really hard to convince the human race to recycle more / consume less when such behavior doesn’t produce tangible benefits for the actors. As one author put it, “Although collective behavior can cause major damage, an individual’s behavior normally will have no visible environmental effects.”  That being said, although we can’t often see the effects of our “unsustainable” behavior, social pressure is still an important motivator. When this social pressure is weak or absent though, the rational actor doesn’t care much about sustainability for all the reasons that Sheila Bonini & Jeremy Oppenheim describe.

This brings us to the what TL and others would describe as the holy grail of not just sustainability, but social entrepreneurship generally. Instead of tackling the nearly impossible task of making people change, can we achieve our end goals by utilizing the habits and systems already in place in our society. This is what I interpret to be the meat of Lovins, Lovins, and Hawken’s HBR article.

Sounds easy enough, but for a lot of the problems we’re facing with regard to dwindling resources, technological barriers still exist and/or the problem hasn’t gotten big enough to sufficiently incentivize a solution (generally speaking). What I wanted to do is look and see what I could dig up as proof that profitable, sustainable, competitive businesses can be exist in an arena where people previously saw only waste.

The first thing that came to mind was the information business. If you look up the global market size of the information industry there is quite a bit of difference in opinion, but let’s say that its somewhere around .5 trillion dollars (probably a gross underestimate given that Google’s annual revenue alone was $37B in 2011). Impressive, given that we’ve been generating data for as long as we’ve been a species and yet until the digital revolution, there hasn’t been much thought given to harvesting it. For our purposes of course isn’t a great analogy because even though we might not have thought much of shoppers GPS coordinates before cell-phones, I doubt marketers ever saw it as waste and even then, data generation was never an unsustainable habit of ours.

Thinking a little smaller, a few examples were raised of upcycling businesses. These are businesses which take resources that others perceive as having either negative, zero, or negligible value and then transform them into something of greater value. Ex. the Oregon-based clothing company Looptworks which uses scrap clothing material as its consumable. Whether you’re making new duds or using old wood pallets for your hipster table, these ideas fit squarely into what Hawken and the Lovins’ would call “dramatically [increasing] the productivity of natural resources.” The businesses aren’t revolutionary in the sense that they’re implementing new business models, but rather that they are reconnecting waste products into the cycle of commerce in much the same way that firms are trying to harvest resources from landfills.

As our society progresses the cost-benefit scale will constantly be moving in reaction to factors such as resource scarcity, social pressure, and our understanding of externalities. Want to, but I can’t help it
I love the way it feels. Rather than fight this, we should try to be a little more like Barry and accept that it is in our nature to act as we do. The holy grail of sustainability isn’t radical, its a innovative normal.

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2 thoughts on “Motown and the Holy Grail of Sustainability

  1. OTM November 13, 2012 at 9:19 AM Reply

    Reblogged this on OTM and commented:

    Something that I wrote for my social entrepreneurship class last week. No comments from the classmates yet, but you can bet that I’m all about my Kool aid. Well, kinda.

  2. tlhill2012 November 24, 2012 at 11:30 AM Reply

    Kyle – thanks for the post. A couple fo thoughts…

    First, you and Barry make the excellent point that, being people, we are NOT rational actors. We are, in fact, driven by all sorts of desires and needs that affect our behavior, making even “rational” economic choices less than rational – or more precisely, that we look for the new ipad is often not rational, even if how we shop might be (but again, not always). This is a critical observation because so much economics and so much economic policy assumes rationality – rather than admittinng other motivations and then working with them. One reason that Gandhi is so interesting and so frustrating to read is that he constantly mixes rational argumen with religious pleas and solutions: Suggesting daily spinning of thresad as a meditation as well as a way of reducing the power of the British textile industry and increasing the potential of hyperlocal village industries.

    That being said, once we do start calculating, we don’t do it well – as you so well describe. Not only do we neglect externalities, we also simply the complexities of the calculations by resorting to all sorts of biases and heuristics – ones that cognitive psychologists and behavioral finance scholars are busy teasing out.

    And so to the holy grail, although the questions of measurement (another way of talkinga bout how to internalize externalities) and motivation and governance (more voices, more points of view, more passions at the table) keep coming up.

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