Recalibration of sustainability – welcome ‚ThriveAbility’

Recalibration of sustainability – welcome ‚ThriveAbility’


The below article has been published in the January 2014 edition of the China Quality Magazine. This goes to more than 30.000 readers I’ve been told. I thank the editors of the China Quality Magazine for the opportunity to make their readers familiar with the ThriveAbility concept.

More than 400 quality managers and executives were gathered in Tallin in the middle of 2013 on the occasion of the yearly EOQ Conference, and for the first time the participants were confronted with a new term – Thriveability. Here’s why:

2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The sequel of the Earth Summit was again held in Rio, so consequently that Summit was called Rio+20. The attending corporate world, represented by hundreds of companies, as well as the political leaders, agreed on the vision of a ‚Green & Inclusive Economy’.

Sustainability as it is used in companies today has only little to do with what the Brundtland Report in 1987 and the Rio Declaration from 1992 remind us of: a company’s doing has to be put in context, enabling human beings to live a healthy life in harmony with nature, as well as enabling a development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This in summary is often also called the triple bottom line, a term coined by John Elkington in his 1998 book ‚Cannibals with forks’.

In a way sustainability management has adopted a lot from the quality movement: in the interest of efficiency gains a higher level of transparency has moved in, and the proactive companies have harvested the low hanging fruit in the first years. We have seen sustainability management support from ISO, starting with ISO 14000, and later ISO 26000. We have seen reporting standards like the Global Reporting Initiative, a rather generic umbrella to discuss the most material sustainability issues and align performance indicators alongside this focus, or more issue-specific reporting like the CDP (covering carbon and water now, and probably even more in the future). The sustainability movement has also adopted the idea of awards, general and sector-specific. More than 120 ranking and rating schemes, mostly methodological black boxes, have seen the light of day. But is that enough? By far not, and China already does feel the consequences every day.

What we can conclude more than 20 years after the first conference and more than 25 years after the Brundtland report is simply unsatisfactory, even more it has cemented our path to a slow death of humans on this planet. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General already addressed this in front of the World Economic Forum’s corporate leaders by saying ‚Our current economic model is a global suicide pact. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone’.

What does make ThriveAbility different from our current management of sustainability? Two main areas need to be mentioned:

At first, Thriveability is aiming at closing the so-called ‚Sustainability Context Gap’. By that it starts to reclaim the focus of sustainability. At this moment companies are mainly telling us how much ‚less bad’ they have become, with a focus to decrease negative impacts and with little up to no ideas how to improve positive impacts through their daily sales of products and/or services. Focusing on ‚net positive impact’ as a balance of the total behavior towards the environment and society and developing a positive legacy, would be a great ‚North Star’, but hardly any company can answer at this moment in how far their doing is endangering the ability of next generations to live a decent live with the same opportunities as the current generation.

We recognize that sustainability strategies are often aligned to symptoms, not to root causes, and that leads to narrowly focused action. For example, a company that focuses on a reduction of CO2 normally makes little effort to go beyond its own production facilities, and is not looking at the opportunities that the megatrends causing the global or regional CO2 rise may have for their core business. We have identified that a combination of six megatrends needs to be analyzed in depth to understand the nexus implications on a company’s (sustainability) strategy: environmental degradation, demographic changes, urbanization, shifts in world trade, shifts in technology, shifts in transparency. This discussion helps to develop a ‚world view’ and can be the starting point for building an opportunities-based roadmap towards thrival.

Secondly, ThriveAbility needs to also regain excitement. Talking to companies on a daily basis it is shocking to see the little willingness to go ‚the extra mile’, simply because it would make business sense. As there is no sustainable company on an unsustainable planet, we need to move away from sustainability as the ‚Sword of Damocles’, and back to enthusiastic engagement. We observe that the combination of sustainability (with regained meaning as mentioned above), innovation, design, and beneficial leadership (based on the work done around spiral dynamics, flourishing and mindfulness) can open up new gates towards a thriving economy.

A ThriveAbility Dashboard would pull together four quadrants of information:

  • Information about the level of change for the transformation towards a thriving business model, by that enabling the ‚possibility’ for thrival;
  • Current performance based on the ‚footprints’ (negative impacts) and ‚handprints’ (positive impacts) of actions and creations;
  • North Star information about the carrying capacity of a flourishing world;
  • Predictive models that pull the information of the first three quadrants together and allow a clear picture of where a company stands vis-à-vis set micro-macro targets and where it may still need to move towards in the future.

The quality movement can become a great enabler if it understands that quality has an inside-out and an outside-in component. As said, what is inside quality worth if it can’t help to make the outside world better? What if efficiency and quality gains are realized by burdening natural capital, human capital, intellectual capital or societal capital? It is time for the quality movement to give itself a new ‚North Star’! Be part of the change, ThriveAbility will be a great gateway to redefine that particular scope.

Here’s the link from China Quality Magazine 1 2014 Article Ralph Thurm (in case you are able to read it ;-))