Foreword: Leading Change Toward Sustainability (2003)

leading change toward sustainability

Few forward-thinking business leaders today would deny that the great advances of the industrial revolution brought with them a host of unintended consequences. While most of us owe our high standard of living to the technological innovations developed in the course of the last century—affordable energy; rapid transportation; fast, low-cost automated production; advanced information systems—we have inherited, along with our good fortune, a bevy of environmental and social problems.

A cursory list might include: pollution of air, water and soil from billions of tons of toxic waste; declining biological and cultural diversity from the harvesting of natural resources; regulations that merely limit the poisoning of people and the environment; production and use of materials so dangerous they will require constant, costly vigilance from future generations; prosperity measured by activity not legacy.

These are vexing problems. Some might see them as numbingly so. Yet, thankfully there are many in the world of business who see today’s challenges as opportunities, and rather than moving blindly ahead, the world be damned, they are striving to make industry more sustainable.

And here’s where things get even more challenging. What, exactly, is sustainability? Once you’ve defined what sustainable business is, how do you effectively pursue this new strategy? How do you transform your organization from top to bottom so that your vision of sustainability drives everyday decision-making and defines short-and long-term success? In short, how do organizations change and thrive? And what if we could move beyond sustainability, which suggests the maintenance of a damaging system, to a truly beneficial and sustaining model for industry that gives our children a delightful prospect, rather than simply a less terrifying one?

These questions are at the heart of Bob Doppelt’s Leading Change Toward Sustainability. They are crucial questions. While some businesses are successfully steering through the difficult transition from conventional to sustainable commerce, many others are not. The course is beset with obstacles, from failures to change ingrained ways of doing business to misunderstanding the problems at hand. But as Leading Change Toward Sustainability clearly illustrates, real change is not only possible, it can be strategically nurtured and implemented by following a path blazed by the “early adopters” of the sustainable business vision.

Vision and leadership are key. As Doppelt’s numerous case studies reveal, “exemplary organizations are exceptionally clear about their purpose.” Effective leaders set the tone, defining their organizations with the clarity of their vision, conviction and commitment. And their principled activity. That’s why, when Michael Braungart and I wrote The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability in 1992, we focused on creating a framework for effective, principled decision-making. Indeed, an entire company’s culture can be transformed when its decision-making framework becomes infused with a strong, lucid sense of purpose. As Doppelt says: “Vision provides the goal; principles frame the path.”

Clear vision, however, is not so easily achieved. Since the early 1990s many businesses trying to operate more sustainably have defined themselves with strategies aimed at reducing the impacts of industry by minimizing waste, pollution and natural resource depletion. While we applaud these efforts, which can ease ecological stress in the short-term, minimizing environmental degradation is not a strategy for real change, nor does it offer an inspiring vision of success.

Real change comes when industrial processes are designed to be more economically, socially and ecologically beneficial rather than merely less polluting. Long-term prosperity depends not on making a fundamentally destructive system more efficient, but on transforming the system so that all of its products and processes are safe, healthful and regenerative.

This sustaining vision of industry is both practical and inspiring. Over the past decade, my colleague Michael Braungart and I have had the opportunity to build its framework and put it into practice with some of the world’s most successful corporations, several of which are featured in Leading Change Toward Sustainability. Through McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and William McDonough + Partners, we’ve helped companies worldwide apply specific, ecologically intelligent principles to the design of products, systems, factories, offices and community plans. Modeled on natural systems, these fundamental design principles yield products that are composed of materials that biodegrade and become food for biological cycles, or of synthetic materials that stay in closed-loop technical cycles, where they continually circulate as valuable nutrients for industry. They yield buildings designed to accrue solar energy, sequester carbon, filter water, create habitat, and provide safe, healthy, delightful places to work. Designs such as these aren’t damage management strategies. They don’t seek to retrofit a destructive system. Instead, they aim to eliminate the very concept of waste while providing goods and services that restore and support nature and human society. They are built on the conviction that design can celebrate positive aspirations and create a wholly positive human footprint.

Leading Change Toward Sustainability is built on such convictions. Bob Doppelt understands that a clear, positive direction coupled with effective principles is the key to realizing sustaining organizations. He understands the relationship between inspired purpose and success.

Statements such as ‘we will be in full compliance with the law’ and ‘we will minimize our environmental and social impacts’ are not visions. They tell people what not to do—what to avoid. These are backward looking images. They focus on eliminating something. Negative purposes fail to elicit the creative energies or passions of employees. This approach depresses human motivation and underscores the truth of the old biblical proverb that says, ‘where there is no vision, the people perish’….Effective visions, in contrast, provide an absorbing, positive image of the future.

Leading Change Toward Sustainability is devoted to allowing the people to thrive. While reflecting on the relationship between vision, leadership and change, it also offers a vision of its own, limning useful guidelines from a careful analysis of the successes and failures of leading corporations striving for sustainability. Like the visions he praises, Doppelt provides a positive image of the future that can empower leaders to inspire creativity and commitment throughout their organizations. After reading Leading Change Toward Sustainability, those seeking change can’t help but have a more clear understanding of what it means to say: ‘Our goal is to become a truly sustaining organization.’ With the help of this useful book, they just might reach that laudable destination.


William McDonough
Charlottesville, Virginia
July 2003

Foreword: Leading Change Toward Sustainability © 2003 William McDonough