Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Systems thinking and the inevitability of ‘green’

By Jim Hall on June 22, 2009

A green destination is inevitable for every American company. How that is achieved is the point of this blog post. At the outset, I’ll just say this: those companies that follow the defined path toward sustainability may survive, but those that chart their own course will become leaders, and thrive in the new business environment that is upon us.

It’s easy enough to find the soon-to-be well-trodden path; a Google search or quick meeting with a consultant will reveal literally hundreds of cases, articles and essays that can be used to put your company on the path of sustainability. However, the fact is that the optimal path is different for every company. Organizational drag, budgetary considerations, and the technologies employed will affect the complexity of the mission to make the company and its products more sustainable.

A basic law of the organization is that it makes its own survival paramount. In that, it’s no different from any evolutionary model. For that reason, it is vital to understand the organizational landscape in order to accomplish anything worthwhile. Understanding this landscape provides a starting point, a direction, and a route, highlighting obstacles and opportunities along the path to sustainability. In short, the organization is its own environment, within the larger environment we all inhabit.

GTI (General Theory of Innovation) is a powerful tool that offers a unique perspective for understanding the corporate sustainability landscape. Through GTI, we perceive everything to be a system. An organization’s products, markets, employees, and even its bureaucracy are all seen as systems according to GTI. In fact, everything that makes up the corporate environment can be thought of as a set of systems and subsystems, organized into a hierarchy whose collective purpose is to produce goods or services.

According to GTI, every system contributes positively and negatively to the organization’s environment, and requires organizational resources. A machine contributes work (positive) and emissions (negative), and in exchange requires energy, maintenance, and other resources.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The evolution of all systems is governed by a set of natural laws that are consistent whether we are talking about the organization, or the world at large. One of these natural laws, the law of evolution, states that evolution has order and does not occur randomly. In other words, when a system evolves, it has a predominant direction. All systems strive to evolve, to deliver more functionality and require fewer resources from their environments.

Because all systems are subject to natural laws, the evolution of any system is inevitable. Evolution requires that the environment seek to reduce the price it pays for the services of the system. Furthermore, the environment will also seek to eliminate any system that harms it.

What this suggests is that none of us has control over the move towards a sustainable existence. In fact, the sustainability movement was inevitable and the result of a natural and predictable evolution.

Sustainability is simply a natural evolutionary cycle that is attempting to create efficiency in and remove cost from the environment. Fortunately for businesses, the consequences of participation in this evolution can also be greater efficiency and reduced operating expense. It’s safe to say that tomorrow’s Green Economy will continue to be a reflection of these natural laws from which no organization can escape if it desires to survive. Sustainability at its core is nothing more than a “natural” reaction to increase efficiency and drive out costs.

One final point: if you apply these same GTI principles to GHG emissions, then the impending regulatory requirement to reduce GHG emissions may just be natural laws at work. In this scenario, the environment is seeking to eliminate the systems that are causing it harm. We are all part of that evolutionary effort.

In my next blog, I’ll explore how the concept of GTI can be applied to your organization, to ensure its own survival.