Redefining the 3 R's
Every sustainable business knows the three R’s mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. I’ve been thinking and speaking about building on that successful shorthand for conservation principles by suggesting a new version of the three R’s that distills larger ideas about sustainability: rethink, rebuild, renew. With this mantra, we can focus our thinking on the systemic changes needed to create a truly sustainable society.
True sustainability requires rethinking the assumptions and processes that drive our economy. These include:
Linear design, which results in products that deplete resources in their creation and end their lives in landfill. Rethinking this approach means embracing cradle-to-cradle design, which requires a complete lifecycle approach to making products and ensuring that their parts can be reused or disposed of harmlessly, so that everything is in a continuous flow of use and reuse.
Unlimited competition, which can lead to social Darwinism and encourage individuals to define their self-worth based on personal achievements and the approval of others. This, in turn, leads to excessive self-interest and a lack of social responsibility. The end result is a fragmented society whose members suffer from isolation, fear, and anxiety. In this situation, community support structures are weak and the frontier ethic rules. A different world is possible: what if instead we measured personal success by how much good we do for our community?
Endless growth as the measure of economic success, which results in unsustainable consumption and has failed to solve the problems of poverty and unequal access to opportunity. What’s the alternative? We need to connect the workplace and its outputs to the goals of strengthening communities and enabling everyone to lead a wholesome, integrated life with access to human essentials such as food, health, housing, and education.
Business practices that would help us make this connection include:
- Expanding our accounting system to more completely account for all costs and benefits—for example, the costs of air and water pollution or the benefits of paid employee volunteer time. We need to stop ignoring businesses’ impact, both positive and negative, on communities and the environment.
- Accounting on our balance sheets for the value of employees and other important intangibles that are an essential part of a company’s value.
- Encouraging businesses to address the triple bottom line in their annual shareholder reports by providing a true “balanced scorecard.”
A great example of rethinking in action is B Lab’s work on creating the B Corporation certification and working to pass benefit corporation legislation in every state, which will allow mission-based companies to stay true to their mission as they grow, without fear of shareholder lawsuits.