Clarity vs. popularity

A friend of mine has long argued that there is an inverse relationship between the popularity of a word and its meaning. The trendier a word has become, he says, the fuzzier it is, until eventually it’s used everywhere and means nothing.

“Sustainability” seems a perfect example for his theory. Once a word primarily associated with dour environmentalists, it’s hard to think of someone these days who does not avidly chatter away about its merits. Politicians of all stripes routinely vie to outdo one another to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. Corporations now have Chief Sustainability Officers. We are all sustainability advocates now. But what are we actually talking about? 

Not much, it seems. 

Into this yawning semantic void steps Andy Hoffman. A business school professor who regularly rubs shoulders with major players throughout America’s corporate landscape, Hoffman might seem an odd choice to be the driving force for a fundamental re-interpretation of the green lexicon. 

But a closer examination shows that he has spent the majority of his career searching for constructive and practical ways to develop mutually beneficial common ground between the forces of capitalism and environmentalism. He is, after all, the professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan.

There’s that word again. 

But Hoffman, to his credit, keeps pushing our understanding of what it actually means. 

However vague it might be, he told me, our widespread invocation of “sustainability” is a good thing. Once rejected from a position at a top-tier business school for being “too focused on the environment”, Hoffman welcomes the fact that sustainability has finally “gone mainstream”. But that’s only the first step.

“Now it’s time to discover ‘sustainability 2.0’: where do we have to go next? There’s been change to a certain point. But the problems continue to get worse and even more radical shifts are called for.”

“Sustainability”, we are told, is “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever”.

A radical shift is exactly what you might call Hoffman’s latest work, Flourishing, written in collaboration with his old mentor John Ehrenfeld. The book is a dialogue between the two experts that begins with an analysis of the issues at play and concludes with a final chapter entitled, “Reasons to be Hopeful”. 

Throughout the conversation, Hoffman plays the straight man to Ehrenfeld’s more radical declarations. What is needed, Ehrenfeld avers, is not simply incremental improvements to help us preserve our status quo, but nothing less than a redefinition of our core values, a collective societal shift away from perpetual consumerism towards a deeper understanding of our place in the world.

To that end, a new definition of that oh-so-troubling word is presented. “Sustainability”, we are told, is “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever”. 

As each aspect of this quasi-utopian announcement is examined, scrutinised and dissected in the cold light of day, I felt myself increasingly at sea. Being confronted by an unabashedly idealistic tract that boldly announces a clear roadmap for societal progress is one thing – we all need to be inspired from time to time. But what on earth is the world coming to when these sorts of things are being written by two engineers, one of whom is a faculty member at a major American business school? What’s next? Disarmament pamphlets by the NRA? Vegetarian cookbooks by the French? Scandinavian samba videos? 

The truth is that I’ve never had a clear understanding of what happens inside business schools anyway. I knew that fees were high, they had shiny, modern buildings filled with people wearing suits, and in stark contrast to the natural sciences, most of their students seemed convinced that time spent there might well lead to an actual job. 

That was about it. And then there was the fact, of course, that all business students were superficial, morally depraved, mindless, consuming sell-outs who were largely responsible for driving the planet to the brink of ecological destruction.

Apparently, this last point needed a bit of a rethink. 

When I finally had the chance to confront Andy with my befuddlement at the whole idea of business schools saving the planet, he calmly deflected my concerns.

“When I first got into this, I wanted to try to teach students to go into companies and help them to see environmental issues as strategic opportunities. We have more and more students coming out and saying, ‘I don’t want to go into a company and teach them, I want to do it myself.’

Andy Hoffman

“Well, there’s definitely a demographic you describe, but more and more students are coming into business schools because they want to make a positive change in the world and they see that business has the power base to do it. And they see the potential opportunities.

“When I first got into this, I wanted to try to teach students to go into companies and help them to see environmental issues as strategic opportunities. We have more and more students coming out and saying, ‘I don’t want to go into a company and teach them, I want to do it myself.’

“And a lot of our students are creating start-ups. I had a meeting just now with a group of students about a business plan for a new initiative. Increasingly, young people are motivated by the idea of creating a company that can try to address social and environmental issues. 

“There’s also a focus now on the ‘hybrid organization’, the sort of organization that lives in the blurry space between the for-profit and nonprofit world. Here in Ann Arbor, there’s Ten Thousand Villages, that’s a nonprofit using a for-profit model, and you have for-profits that develop very strong social and environmental missions. We’re seeing more and more students who want to do that. They want to make a positive impact on the world and they see a business as a way to do it.”

All very smoothly delivered – he is a business professor, after all. But Hoffman is clearly no ordinary guy in a suit. Before returning to do his PhD at MIT, he took five years off to become a carpenter and home builder, a story he detailed in his award-winning memoir Builder’s Apprentice.

And while it’s worth emphasising that virtually all of the truly radical things offered up in Flourishing come from Ehrenfeld rather than Hoffman, it’s equally clear that Hoffman’s strong resonance with his mentor’s views was a prime motivating force for the book’s creation in the first place.

“I see John as a visionary. I see him as looking much further out than most of us can see. He’s a very deep thinker, he’s been thinking about these issues for a long time and he’s very philosophical.

“What he’s pointing out is where we need to go for the long term. He’s trying to point out that some things we’re focusing on now are not going to take us where we need to go. Yes, you can buy a compact fluorescent light bulb and screw it in. That’s great, you’re reducing your energy load. But there are still a lot of materials that went into that: you’re just making the production of light less bad. How do we shift from there to actually making our technological society better? 

“He makes the really powerful point that all our efforts right now are reducing unsustainability, which is a fundamentally different thing than creating sustainability. He’s not against windmills and compact fluorescents and hybrid cars, because he says that’s slowing the velocity at which we’re heading towards that brick wall. But if we want to stop and reverse course, we have to think fundamentally differently about this problem. 

“Now, I don’t expect people to adopt what we’re talking about in this book tomorrow. But I do think he offers us a guidepost towards where we need to go in the long term: if we’re going to get a grip on sustainability, we have to rethink consumption. We have to rethink a lot of the dominant values in our society – for example, that we are defined by what we own. The bigger the house and the fancier the car, the more status you have, the more worth you have, both self-defined and defined by others. If we don’t get a grip on that we’re never going to get there.”

From a rather unexpected quarter, Andy Hoffman offers us a very clear diagnosis of one of the biggest problems of our age. His solution might well prove not to be terribly popular. But that doesn’t make it any less correct. 

Howard Burton is the chief executive officer of Ideas Roadshow, which is a multimedia magazine dedicated to an in-depth exploration of intriguing topics. This commentary is part of a full interview that can be seen here.

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