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Feeding the Beast

Sustainability is about more than eco-friendly burger boxes.

It has become fashionable in business to celebrate one's progress toward "sustainability." Hewlett-Packard wins plaudits for its focus on recyclable computers and printers, and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. McDonald's trumpets its efforts to forge a "socially responsible supply system" encompassing everything from healthy fisheries to redesigned Happy Meal boxes.

All of which is fine. There's nothing wrong, per se, with strategies that leave the world more fish and less cardboard. But those corporate efforts have little to do with true sustainability. In fact, they're missing the point—and the bigger opportunity.

I spent four decades as a chemical engineer in industry, pursuing technological solutions to clean up environmental problems. In the late-blooming academic career that followed, my research came to suggest that those very solutions were in fact part of the problem. What most businesses do in the name of the environment really amounts to an effort to reduce unsustainability. Solutions such as emissions trading and carbon taxes are new means to old ends, modifications of the current economic process that its proponents claim need not cause the destructive consequences of the past.

Real sustainability is a vision both more positive and less simplistic: Not merely the opposite of unsustainability, it embraces the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever. Sustainability is, like beauty, a property of an entire functioning system; it's evident only when everything is working well in relation to everything else.

And the problem for business is, in fact, systemic. It has less to do with what we toss out than with what we consume, which is why it's so difficult to fix. Simply put, we buy and use too much; consumption has become a form of cultural addiction—and it's that addiction that has the most profound impact on the environment. All of their well-intentioned programs to reduce waste notwithstanding, most companies are just feeding the beast.

Business should be wondering why the promise of consumer satisfaction always seems just out of hand, always an iPod or Xbox away—why we have lost, in the sense of Erich Fromm's To Have or To Be?, the being part of human being, reduced instead to the diminished form of having. Roy de Souza, founder of a new Web site,, which collects and displays lists of everyday possessions from mostly young users, told The New York Times, "For the youth, you are what you own." Tellingly, he notes, "They list these things because it defines them."

And that's the thing about consumption: It's essentially a myopic, self- centered pastime. Addictive consumption submerges our concerns about ourselves, others, and the Earth. The things we buy and use become extensions of ourselves; we use them mindlessly, with little awareness of why. The challenge for business should be to reverse this pattern by offering goods and services that, beyond merely adding to our possessions, actually restore and maintain our ability to care and flourish.

Such products exist today. My favorite example is the two-button toilet, still a rarity in the United States but increasingly popular in Northern Europe and New Zealand. In place of the usual single lever or button, the toilet offers two buttons or levers, one small and one large, actuating a smaller or larger flush volume. Beyond its obvious "green" credentials, this toilet actually forces users to engage with it on more than a utilitarian level, and to make a choice. It creates presence in place of mindlessness.

Likewise, German designer Sven Adolph has created a space heater with movable ceramic panels that must be adjusted to conform to the placement of people in a room. The operator actually engages with (and takes care of) the occupants. Imagine extending that dynamic to a range of everyday products. Our cars could remind us, in real time, of the fuel we're consuming and the emissions we're producing—and suggest walking or taking a bus.

Instead, automakers just give us more fuel-efficient vehicles, which limit the damage but miss the root of the problem. (Perversely, gains in efficiency tend to encourage more consumption.) And we drive around talking into our Bluetooth-connected phones, engrossed in conversation but absent from the rest of the world. The result is what Linda Stone, a former Microsoft researcher, calls "continuous partial attention." We lose our sense of engagement, ultimately compromising our awareness of underlying concerns and our ability to take care of them. Hence, obesity, family violence, and pollution—unsustainable outcomes, to be sure.

Consumers are not just economic bundles of desires; they are human beings whose concerns can't be satisfied merely by having lots of things. Sustainable businesses will help us escape addiction by offering carefully designed products and services that bring the world present—and nudge us toward responsible choices.

John R. Ehrenfeld, a former faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.