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Balancing Act

November 9, 2010

Philip Crosby, quality guru, famously said that

 “Quality is free”. 

His argument was that if you did it right the first time, you would save money otherwise spent on reworking or, in the case of products, wasted on scrap.  What can be said about sustainability?  Cost is, as noted in previous posts, at least the perceived bane of sustainability programs. 

Long-term, we may be able to say “sustainability is free” or even “sustainability makes money”, because in the long-term, preservation of natural capital such as clean air, clean water, and whole ecosystems will have an increased value.  It is, however, impossibly naïve to argue that all production must cease to increase long-term value.  This is where the term “balance” comes in, the implicit meaning of the often-quoted Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Short-term, it would be difficult to claim that sustainability is free the way quality was proved to be.  Short-term, though, sustainability generates value through the generation of goodwill, an enhanced brand image among increasingly aware consumers, and greater efficiencies that do directly impact the bottom line.

I am sure you’ve heard of The Tragedy of the Commons. This means simply that individuals, acting independently in their own self-interest, will deplete common resources even when it is not in anybody’s long-term interests to have this happen.  Organizations and individuals that ignore this phenomenon will find that wealth and prosperity will decrease over time.  On the other hand, traditional economic theory argues that Adam Smith’sinvisible hand”, where all individuals acting in their own self-interest, benefits society as a whole.  The two ideas conflict. 

Maybe what we can say about sustainability is that it is the fulcrum balancing the commons with the invisible hand. 


This leads into the ideas of trade-offs….the topic of the next post.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 9, 2010 2:16 pm

    To your comment that “Short-term, it would be difficult to claim that sustainability is free the way quality was proved to be”:

    Actually, I think the parallel is just as precise as it first appears. In both cases, it’s a matter of payback period.

    When quality is literally, immediately free, or close enough to make the point, it’s because a flash of insight or a more deliberate piece of research leads to a breakthrough so simple, smart, and (in retrospect) obvious that the resulting savings pay back any added costs very quickly. The same is true in areas like sustainable design, and with some sustainable products. In both areas, there are investments that take longer to pay back, but are still arguably worth the effort, particularly if anyone bothers to measure the “externalities” of a business decision as well as the direct costs.

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