Green Business: Less Bad is Not Good Enough–Addressing Context in Sustainability Reporting

Less bad is not sustainable.

First, a shot across the bow.

This excerpt from the forthcoming book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability by authors John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman wastes no time on niceties.

Less bad is not sustainability. It’s still bad. And anything that’s bad, by definition, isn’t sustainable.


The Wrong-Headed Solutions of Corporate Sustainability
No matter how many times someone talks about what they are doing for sustainability — using green, sustainable or sustainability to describe a new product or new program to inform their customers — they are still in the world of Business (Almost) As Usual. It’s different from Business As Usual, but it is not the kind of paradigmatic or transformational shift that is necessary to address health, well-being, community building, interconnectedness and all the other parts of the vision of sustainability-as-flourishing.

At this moment in time, almost everything being done in the name of sustainability entails attempts to reduce unsustainability. But reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create sustainability.

What’s missing?

Context. Context. Context.

Our actions as companies and businesses have to be measured–and moderated–within the larger communities in which we work. Meaning, the entire world outside our factory’s walls. The impact of our business on the cities and counties we belong to. The oceans we share. The air we all breathe.

Here’s a simple example. Say, for instance, that a company reports that it has used 50% less water than the year before out of a lake next to the factory.

That’s progress. Less bad. But if the company is depleting the lake faster than the aquifer can replenish, the less-bad amount is still not good.

No amount of less bad can make up for the fact that, at some point, all the water will be gone. And then what?

These concepts are simple enough for a child to grasp, but somehow get lost in life’s complexities.

That’s why we need better ways to get our arms around it. The business world is starting to grapple with these issues, by incorporating this bigger picture.

Two important reads via

Closing the context gap: sustainability reporting is failing us: Sustainability reporting has only shown which companies are “less bad” when what we really need is a minimum standard(Ralph Thurm)

Development of real-world ecological budgets mean investors must consider companies’ environmental and social impact (Mark McElroy, Bill Baue, Cary Krosinsky)

And via, an excellent synthesis by Elaine Cohen:

Getting the right knobs in place: closing the gap between reducing impacts and achieving sustainability

Dealing with our changing climate is about facing reality. We need to change how we use the world’s resources.  The future is about operating within a fair and reasonable competitive arena that ensures ongoing prosperity and opportunity for more of us.

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