What is Sustainability?: An Interview with Adam Werbach

Posted on 25. Jul, 2011 by in Business & Policy, Interviews

When we think sustainability, we think green. But sustainability is much broader than being green; green is merely one component of the sustainability field.

Distinguishing sustainable and green may seem trivial and unnecessary; after all, they’re both “good” things worth pursuing, right? But seeing sustainability solely in terms of being green neglects the other components of sustainability and misses the big picture.

For Adam Werbach, Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S and author of Strategy for Sustainability, a narrow focus on environmental sustainability only scratches the surface of what’s possible through sustainable practices. Adam Werbach is an activist who has been trying to stop some of humanity’s dumbest efforts to destroy the earth. He is the chief sustainability officer for Saatchi & Saatchi S. He was elected president of the Sierra Club at age 23 and has helped some of the world’s biggest companies become more sustainable.

Environmental writer Patrick Haase, for OppGreen Insights, interviews Adam Werbach to explore just what sustainability signifies to him.

OG: What is Sustainability?

AW: Sustainability can be broken down into four parts:

  • Environmental (Green): Protecting and restoring the ecosystem (e.g., climate change, preservation of natural resources, prevention of toxic waste)
  • Economic: Operating profitably so as to be able to continue operating for years to come
  • Social: Acting as if other people matter (e.g. poverty, violence, injustice, public health, etc.)
  • Cultural: Protecting and valuing cultural diversity and protecting those actions through which communities manifest their identity and cultivate tradition

Sustainability efforts emphasize environmental and economic sustainability and often neglect social and cultural sustainability. The social and cultural components of sustainability are just as important to making businesses and individuals sustainable over the long term.

OG:  You recently led a panel discussion at ADMERICA!, the annual conference of the American Advertising Federation, with Opportunity Green’s CEO/Co-Founder, Karen Solomon.  Tell me more about “The Sustainability Sweet Spot: Value for both Customers and Brands”.

AW: From a business perspective, Frito-Lay has embraced social and cultural sustainability by giving consumers healthier snack choices, like whole grain SunChips. Healthier snacks allow Americans to embrace their snacking traditions (cultural sustainability) while helping to improve public health through healthier snack options (social sustainability). As a result, SunChips became one of Frito-Lay’s fastest growing brands (economic sustainability) and the company has since incorporated solar energy into the manufacturing of the product (environmental sustainability).

Businesses that take a comprehensive approach to sustainability and look for sustainable opportunities across all four components of sustainability potentially open themselves up to greater cost savings and success over the long term.

Individuals can also become more sustainable. Consuming less and recycling more are familiar ways individuals address environmental and economic sustainability, but individuals can also become more socially and culturally sustainable by tutoring children, planting a vegetable garden, visiting museums, or simply watching less television. All of these actions help to improve our individual lives and promote community involvement, making us more engaged citizens.

OG: Why Pursue Sustainability?

Adam: Sustainability is intended to create an engaged citizenry.

Engaged citizens are more likely to participate in school and community functions, save for college, and vote. Building an engaged citizenry is the foundation to solving large, systemic issues like climate change. With more people focused on solving societal problems, the more likely we’ll be able to address those problems in a meaningful way.

Green, although often overemphasized, can be the gateway to creating more engaged citizens. For example, an individual that changes the types of light bulbs he uses becomes involved at a very basic level at reducing his environmental impacts. It’s through the collection of small steps—using less water, less energy, and recycling more—that we start to cultivate a more engaged citizenry.

Sustainability at its core is simply a framework—an approach—to addressing large issues like climate change. By “Going Green” we’re not simply helping the environment, we’re taking our first steps to being more knowledgeable, conscious, and productive citizens. Engaged citizens working within the sustainability framework will be the ones to create, implement, and demand meaningful, endurable solutions to our large, systemic societal problems.


Related links:


Read Adam’s articles in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/author/adam-werbach

Follow Adam on Twitter: @adamwerbach


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2 Responses to “What is Sustainability?: An Interview with Adam Werbach”

  1. SarahRhoades1

    04. Aug, 2011

    This article is super interesting. I have always thought of environmental sustainability as the most important part of sustainability but now I will definitely consider cultural and social as well.

  2. [...] resources, social, economic and natural. It’s so subtle, I almost missed it until I read an interview with Adam Werbach on OppGreen Insights. Adam is an environmental activist, but his sustainability definition encompasses much more than [...]

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