John R. Ehrenfeld


On his book Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture

Cover Interview of February 03, 2009

A close-up

A few years ago, I heard a speaker from a large retail chain give an impassioned presentation about what his firm was doing for sustainability.  He told us about “dumpster diving,” in which store personnel periodically emptied the dumpsters located at the backdoor and sorted the contents.  Cardboard packaging was found to be the major part of the trash.  The company realized it could bundle the cardboard and sell it to recyclers, thus behaving in a greener way and making money at the same time.  The speaker stopped, and then invited questions.

After a few queries, someone asked, “What you are doing is certainly a step in the right direction, but have you ever thought about all the stuff that goes out of the front door?  What about its impact on the environment?”  The question stopped him short, and, after a long pause, he responded, “Well, I see what you are getting at.  You mean that the real environmental impact of our business comes in the use and disposal of what our customers carry out with them.”

This story is taken from chapter 2, “Solving the Wrong Problem: How Good Habits Turn Bad.”  It is typical of responses to daily, normal problems.  We tend to deal with the symptoms that bother us, but fail to recognize or address the underlying causes.  If we are to change the threatening trajectory we are on, we must, first, recognize that our individual and collective actions are producing unintended consequences.  In this case, the result was negative impact created by the stuff that went out the front door.

This book rests on the observation that cultures eventually begin to produce pathological, unintended consequences when the world changes, but cultural habits don’t.  Chapter 2 explains how this happens in a way that connects to our own experiences. If we are to stop what we are doing now and adopt new cultural underpinnings, we must first acknowledge that we are in a state of denial.  The hyper-consumptionism that so characterizes our culture is the “solution” to symptoms of emptiness and dissatisfaction.  It may work for a while, but we always return to a need for more and more things.  Remember President Bush’s solution to the angst felt after 9/11: go shopping.

If we see unsustainability merely as a set of problems to solve, albeit very challenging problems, we will miss what goes out the front door and its pernicious impact on both the natural world and on our vitality.  There is another, subtler problem hidden in this pattern.  Sustainable development simply equates more sustainability to less unsustainability.  The Zen notion of a glass half full or half empty suggests that, as we reduce the emptiness, the fullness will appear.  In many cases this is true, but not for sustainability.  Reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability.  They are not two sides of the same coin.  Our great challenge is to dig deep into our cultural psyche to uncover and re-design the engine that motors our everyday lives.