Compression & Sustainability

“Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever. Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

– John Ehrenfeld

Compression Thinking and the Triple Bottom Line

A common framework for sustainability in organizations is the triple bottom line, where economic (profit), environment (planet), and social responsibility (people) measures are addressed as sort of a balanced scorecard.  Measuring more than financial performance is an important first step, but not enough.  

By Compression Thinking, the triple bottom line becomes three nested circles, as shown below. Top priority is the environment; without it, we’re all dead. 

Next priority is people. In business jargon, that means delivering value and improving quality of life to all stakeholders — and you can regard the environment as a stakeholder.

Last is profit. It’s a convention, not an ultimate objective, but in a transactional economy, every business must make a profit. By its conventions, no person or other organization can long function if it is spending more money than it takes in. Therefore, profit tends to dominate our attention. 

Can We Reconcile These Priorities?

Ultimately, no. Compression is improving quality of all life while greatly reducing raw resource use and eliminating bulk use of toxins. Consider products and services first in terms of physical processes, including life-cycle effects on nature. If you can make a profit doing that, wonderful, but maximum profit is not an objective.

Smart managers may fudge a little by thinking differently about business. Consider profit as a business model design characteristic, much like durability and usability are parameters in product design. Target a profit and control operations to hit it. And be open about it, so customers know what they’re doing and why; therefore, here’s what we have to pay.    

But Compression Thinking is not about prescribing answers. It’s about asking deeper questions, such as “Long term, what should this business do for the ecology and for all its stakeholders?” For example, are automakers in the business of selling vehicles or in the business of enabling transport when needed?

Also Compression Thinking should lead to organizations being disciplined and flexible working toward meaningful purposes while being unafraid to question those purposes.