Disruptive Design
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Disruptive Design

New Guidebook: Swivel to Sustainability, all about Full Systems Business Transformation is out now

Swivel to Sustainability: a Guidebook to Full Systems Business Transformation is now available to purchase as a digital ebook (with the physical book being available in a few weeks).

Today I’m launching my new guidebook as part of a new initiative Swivel Skills! It’s taken me a year and a half to create this 160-page book. I was inspired by the last two decades of working in advancing sustainability for innovation and design, and my intention in writing this was to provide actionable sustainability skills to people working at all levels of business, to help them create the transformation to a circular and regenerative economy.

Thus, this guidebook is designed for business professionals wanting to embark upon, expand or rapidly level up their sustainability transformation. It does not waste time detailing all the social and environmental issues that are perpetuated by activities in business (I’m sure you’re all well aware of these issues like climate change, the global waste crisis, ecosystem destruction and pollution); instead, you will find clear information, the motivations for business transformation and proactive steps to take to get there.

Why a Guidebook on Business Sustainability?

I truly believe that sustainability done well is a pathway to a restorative and regenerative economy. Over the last two decades of my career, I have had the pleasure of working with many different sized companies and organizations, but recently as more and more get involved in addressing the climate crisis and dealing with plastic waste, I’ve found myself in meetings and conversations with senior leaders from different industries and been alarmed by the knowledge gap around the comprehension of core terms and concepts related to sustainability. This doesn’t just result in greenwashing; it also slows down progress, as many important aspects of what constitutes science-based sustainability are ignored or left behind.

Like any field of professional practice and academic theory, there are differing perspectives on sustainability. For the context of this book, written specifically for professionals working in the business world, sustainability is framed as a practical and science-based approach to rectifying past and present negative impacts by using a technical framework that transforms them into positive effects.

This guidebook is fundamentally about organizational change, as the transformation from a linear to a circular business model requires shifting mindsets, innovating beyond ways of the past and redesigning the way we work as well as the products we create.

One of the main topics that the book addresses is how to overcome the barriers that occur when people are confronted with the need to transform their business practices into a new, dynamic and complex way of creating value.

Sustainability as an approach, movement, technical skillset and business objective is very different from the word “sustainable”, which is used in a variety of different contexts to describe something as being able to be sustained into the future.

Sustaining an unhealthy system is not the goal. Extraction, exploitation and the growth-at-all-costs mindsets are not sustainable. Nor are products that are designed to be wasted or business practices that don’t take full responsibility for the entire value chain or the impacts that their activities have on the world. These are what we need to challenge.

Sustainability is not at all about sustaining the status quo — it’s about integrating the concept of sustainment into the DNA of an organization and our culture at large. It’s about reconfiguring society so that we understand and work within the systems that sustain life on Earth. The goal is to find ways of meeting human needs today while also advancing society for the future — but not at the expense of other living systems, the planet, or the quality of life for future generations.

Sustainability is the major innovation opportunity — a chance for organizations to fully embrace a sincere, full systems transformation that opens the pathway to not just sustaining our beautiful planet, but restoring and regenerating it.

Excerpt from Part 1

Sustainability as a Business Objective

Sustainability is the business imperative of our time. Because customers and employees want to invest in, buy from and work for companies that have social and environmental values, it’s no longer good enough to buy carbon credits and claim a product is “carbon neutral” or has recycled materials in it.

These insincere approaches do little to convince a more savvy audience that your actions are doing good as a whole company. People want to engage with products and services that are not simply doing less harm, but actually doing significant good, working toward giving back more than they have taken.

In the context of business, sustainability is about ensuring that workers, workplaces, and business structures are operating in an ethical, equitable, ecologically benign and economically viable way (whereas from a personal perspective, sustainability is more about the choices we make when consuming goods and services).

In short, it’s about integrating an approach to doing business that meets the needs of customers and workers without impacting the planet at large. In order to achieve this, every person within the company needs to have basic sustainability skills, be aware and aligned with policies and commitments and be willing to adapt their approaches to meet bigger picture goals.

In the age we live in now, every job is a climate job, so we all have the opportunity to do good through our work, be it in accounting (such as ESG see page 66), HR, Design, Management, Product Development, Retail, Customer Service, Hospitality, or any of the millions of roles that make up the economy.

Sustainability offers significant untapped opportunities for creating transformative change in the way products are produced, operations are managed, supply chains are created, and stakeholders are engaged with. This takes individuals working within teams and collaborating for effective change to take hold.​​

The goal is for full systems sustainability to lead to restorative and regenerative outcomes.

From add-on to Integral

In the past, many organizations have fallen into the trap of thinking sustainability is an add-on or a side project for some good-intentioned team members, or that it’s a simple tick-the-box style activity that has to be done to meet regulations.

As a result, some have been caught greenwashing (making claims that can’t be validated and misleading customers) because they didn’t hire people with the right skillset or invest enough resources in doing sustainability well.

Greenwashing happens when more money is spent on marketing the green credentials of a product, service or company, rather than ensuring that it actually has positive benefits by doing the R&D, getting the scientific data to validate the claims and ensuring that the product lives up to its marketing claims. This ends up misleading consumers and perpetuating harmful environmental myths in the process (we go over greenwashing and green myths in much more detail in the guidebook, available here).

The difference between doing superficial and substance-based sustainability is in embracing the full systems transformation that is needed to ensure all aspects of your business, including the cultural aspects, have taken on this great challenge as an opportunity for change and grown through that. That’s what true innovation is all about: using parameters as guidelines for new ideas and approaches to solving problems.

Mindset Shifts

Can you imagine any person or business leader today who would actively say that they didn’t want to help create a better, healthier future for us all? By not embracing sustainability in a significant way, this is what any leader is conveying — that they don’t care about the future we are creating with our actions today.

That’s why your activation of a full systems approach to sustainability in your business will put you at the forefront of your industry’s response to the great disruptions of our time.

With the pandemic, climate change, the global waste crisis, supply chain disruptions and massive technological shifts all putting pressure on the ways that companies operate and society evolves, you’ll distinguish yourself as proactive leaders and problem solvers, rather than problem avoiders and planet destroyers.

So, go ahead and abandon old and outdated ideas that sustainability is for hippies or just a “do-the-right-thing” approach, or that it’s someone else’s job, and instead see it for the innovation and leadership opportunity that it is.

All parameters and constraints placed upon us by nature’s limits can be used as the guidelines and structures that fuel and foster true innovation. By flipping the mental switch to an opportunity mindset, you will illuminate the incredible potential that sustainability provides us all. With this open mindset, you can progress through these pages with an inspired outlook for significant systems change and then make that happen for your colleagues, business, sector, industry and society.

What is “full systems” sustainability?

Historically, addressing environmental concerns has been approached in often simplistic ways, such as labeling products as biodegradable, pushing recycling as the main solution and touting a carbon neutral status. But as our understanding of the scale and size of the problems we face has evolved, so too has our ability to address them.

That’s what full systems sustainability offers: a deeper dive into the systems that create the issues, coupled with real cultural and organizational change, driven by actions that go well beyond the obvious.

This guidebook shows you how to push past the superficial first layer of operational impact reduction (which is still an important starting point), move through to the main impact areas of the product life cycle and business model design, then go even further to create the full system experience for your customers and stakeholders. This is what it will take for us to transform to a circular and sustainable economy — a shift in perspective and the activation of new ways of doing business in the 21st century.

Social as well as environmental impacts

One of the often forgotten aspects of sustainability is social impact. Sustainability often evokes ideas of environmental protection, and whilst this is one of the critical aspects, so too is economic health and social equity.

To ensure that the actions you take are contributing to a just and fair world, there are many aspects of social impacts that you can assess and enhance.

These include looking at the health and well-being of workers across all aspects of your supply chain, ensuring that you don’t participate in unfair labor anywhere along your value chain and that working conditions are safe and equitable, providing access to healthcare and time off for workers, looking at the cultural impacts of your products on the people and communities they are serving, prohibiting identity and race from impeding workers’ or customers’ ability to live their lives freely and finally, verifying that countries you are gaining resources from are doing so in ethical ways (this is a big issue with rare Earth minerals in technology, for example).

These social impact aspects should be considered across all areas of your business, from your office workers to the people extracting the raw materials through to the conditions of the factories and subcontractors dotted along your supply chain.

Yes, this is a lot to consider, which is why supply chain mapping is critical. We dive more into that in Part 3 of the guidebook.

The Long History of Sustainability

The term sustainability as it is used today comes in part from the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report “Our Common Future”. This UN report laid out the goal of sustainable development as development that meets the needs of current generations without negatively affecting the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.

Prior to this, the idea of sustaining our species in line with the resources provided by nature can be traced back to the 17th century, when it was used in relation to responsible resource management (for example, forestry). For as long as humans have been taking from nature, the challenge of doing so in a way that maintains instead of exploits the resources has been a challenge.

Self-interest, market demands and economic drivers often push humans to take more than the system can give up without creating irreversible damage. This is called the tragedy of the commons, where common resources are exploited for individual gains. Think of how this applies to the oceans, for example.

Nowadays, sustainability has become the shorthand term used to describe a range of actions, ideas and approaches based on the aspiration of intergenerational equity — which means making choices today that will result in a better future for current and upcoming generations. It’s fundamentally about understanding the impacts of actions and designing solutions that move beyond the current economic status quo of exploitation and extraction, to bring the social and environmental impacts of our actions inline with the economic ones.

Scientists and researchers have long shown how human activity is causing significant impacts on the natural systems that sustain life (Lovelock, 2003). Thus, the risk of us collectively creating an unsustainable future is now a driving force for the modern sustainability movement. This has meant governments are making laws, companies changing their ways and individuals looking for products and services that support a more sustainable lifestyle.

We are now at a point in human history where our actions are threatening to derail our civilization. Climate change disrupting the weather in catastrophic ways, ocean plastic bioaccumulating up the food chain and into our bloodstreams, air pollution is killing 9 million people every year (Fuller et al, 2022) — even the pandemic is linked to habitat destruction (Gillespie, et al, 2021). Not to mention climate change, water scarcity and soil degradation are threatening our ability to produce enough food (Molotoks et al, 2021).

Even though awareness and desire for action is increasing, the calls to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, change our addiction to disposable plastics and stop pumping chemicals into the atmosphere are not being heard by some sectors of society. Our common future depends on the actions we take today to drawdown carbon, shift disposables to reusables and change the way businesses create value in the economy.

Nowadays, sustainability is a global movement that touches all aspects of society and involves an array of scientific and technical approaches that can be applied to understand impacts and design outcomes that rectify the problems of the past. It’s an umbrella term used to describe different structural changes and actions inside businesses and government (carbon accounting, corporate social responsibility, sustainable supply chains, circular economy, etc.), in the financial sector (impact investing, ESG, etc.) and individual lifestyle choices (sustainable living, zero waste, etc.)

Due to its popularity, sustainability is often misused (resulting in greenwashing) and thus commonly misunderstood (confusing people, which leads to distrust). This makes sustainability appear weak, complex and even overwhelming at times. But the original and withstanding idea is to rectify the unsustainable consequences of our actions so that we create the things we need without negative side effects to people and the natural world that we all rely on for life.

The Push for Regeneration

Sustainability as a movement is the process of shifting social values and reorienting away from exploitation toward a regenerative society, one where we give back more than we take. To get to this better state, we have to redesign all of our current processes, systems, businesses, services, products, lifestyles and mindsets.

Over the years of this movement’s evolution, there have been many emergent aspects that connect and propel this thinking forward. The circular economy (Stahel, 2016) emerged as a leading approach to designing waste out of the system, and now we have the emergence of regenerative thinking and design.

Regeneration is what nature does. It is the building block for sustaining life on Earth. All parts of nature go through cycles of growth and renewal that enable new life to constantly form, and from organic adaptation, nature creates strength and resilience through each cycle.

Learning from nature, working within natural systems and giving back more than we take are fundamental shifts in the way we need to think about business and society. Many companies around the world are starting to embrace these significant shifts, especially when it comes to agriculture, buildings, products and community design.

Sustainability is the practical approach to understanding impacts and taking significant action to reduce, replace and redesign negative impacts that you have; regeneration in business is about fundamentally shifting the purpose that drives your business, aligning all of your actions to be impact-free and replenishing the systems that you take from.

The remainder of Part 1 of the Guidebook focuses on the foundations of full systems sustainability, including what sustainability is and isn't, learning from nature and the key concepts related to sustainable transformation, such as the circular economy, the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries, ecological footprinting, the value of nature and much, much more. Stay tuned for an excerpt from Part 2 of the Guidebook, all about overcoming barriers to change, which I’ll share more on here next week.

Ready to dive deeper into activating sustainability in your career? Join me for one of my 1-month live online training sessions! October is focused on the Disruptive Design Method and November is the Sustainability in Business Leadership program. Apply here >

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Leyla Acaroglu

Leyla Acaroglu

UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, Educator, Founder of unschools.co, disrupdesign.co & coproject.co