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The Unfortunate Story of "Sidecar Sustainability"

Image credit: Ural website

Had a conversation with a Chief Operations Officer of a potential client today who said something very interesting. We have been to their manufacturing facility. They have visited us. We have been in discussions for over year, looking to where we can add the most value. They have hired their first global director of sustainability and have begun some important early stage work in water, energy, and waste.

"I don't think we need help in sustainability right now. But we could use assistance in supply chain management."

And this branched into a great discussion of their needs in inventory management, fulfillment, procurement and scheduling optimization. I could tell this was a major priority and source of concern. And Smeal is always in the top five globally in supply chain education so this is like slow-pitch softball for us.

No problem, I said. I will be sending him information about our world-class supply chain program and Center for Supply Chain Research (CSCR). But that wasn't what really got my attention...

Getting Beyond "Sidecar Sustainability"

What is fascinating to me is embedded in his thinking is that sustainability is separate from supply chain management. I see this all the time. I know many of us working in sustainability have this experience. If pressed, I am sure he would reveal that--in his way of thinking--sustainability is separate from just about everything except saving energy, reducing waste and water conservation. For him, and still for many, sustainability is a sideshow, not the main event.

I call this "sidecar sustainability": the notion that social and environmental impact is the exclusive job of facilities and operations.

For me, this is like saying,

"Yeah, I don't think I need help with my eyesight. But I could use your help in selecting some glasses."

The reality is that sustainability is a way of seeing all parts of business.

Sustainability sharpens the precision of all the business tools in the shed. Sustainability is like the salt that makes the flavors of all business functions come alive. I remember visiting Interface, the carpet company well-known for their leadership in closed-loop supply chain innovations and sustainable business. Penn State was trying to select a supplier of carpet and we visited every eligible supplier. At Interface, sustainability was braided into everything and everyone we spoke to had a sophisticated understanding of the concept. It wasn't a part of their business; it was their business. And it still is.

Other companies we visited were different. When sustainability issues came up, everyone would look to the "sustainability person" to answer the question.

Herman Daly, Club of Rome image

Hard to define? So is everything else that matters.

And this has been a challenge since the beginning. Herman Daly, the

former World Bank economist and renowned author of Beyond Growth among other books, noted in the 1990s that sustainable development can be difficult to define.

Herman Daly (Image credit: Club of Rome)

"Some would like to abandon the concept of sustainable development altogether, arguing that it adds nothing to standard economics and is too vague to ever be useful." (Daly, 1996, Beyond Growth)

Daly goes on to argue that most important concepts don't conform easily to "analytically precise definition"--consider leadership, justice, love, quality, ethics, for example. Important concepts, like sustainability, are what he calls "dialectical" not purely analytic. The difference is helpful for us to consider.

  • Analytic concepts are black and white; they have no overlap, no contradictions or messy paradoxes

  • Dialectical concepts can be black, white and gray; they are rich in meaning and subjectivity, highly contextual, and even paradoxical

This tells me that some of our most treasured human moments and aspirations are labelled with words we could never define. I recall being with my father when we was passing away and wondering how to define something as simple as life. Parkinson's had taken so much from him, he didn't really have much of a life anymore. What does it really mean to be alive? To have a good life?

This is not an argument for vagueness. I am not throwing stones at precision and clarity. I am saying that perhaps people have trouble with sustainable development (or "sustainability") because it is part of that family of words we reserve for what really matters. And those things both defy and demand definition.

Sustainability, like art, takes time to full grasp. Image credit:

So with my clients and students, I can have patience. Knowing they are struggling with what is a meaningful concept, equal in weight and substance to our most treasured words, like democracy, liberty and equality. These take time to see in all their fullness. Like a great painting or piece of music, important concepts like sustainability take time to fully grasp and appreciate. That doesn't mean it is vague. Perhaps it even means it is more valuable than we can imagine.

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