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The Multifaceted Nature of Sustainable Development

The cliches of environmentalism have long given way to acceptance that it does offer value to the economy and society

In the 1980s, sustainability – especially environmental sustainability – was often considered tantamount to making sacrifices. Views have changed considerably since then, and it is now accepted that sustainable practices are needed in very different areas of the economy and society. In fact things have gone even further, such that know-how in the field of sustainability management is equated with competitive advantage. Widespread coverage in the media – not least fueled by climate change, environmental disasters, and the 2030 Agenda – is a testament to just how urgent sustainability now is for society and the economy. Nicole Weber-Kaiser has been working alongside the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Sales Analytics as a freelance project manager to highlight the potential that lies in achieving sustainability.

The four quadrants of sustainable development


Thinking first about the word sustainability, the United Nations does not talk about sustainability as something like a status that can be achieved, it refers to sustainable development. It does this to highlight that we are on a journey. Because business forms a link between people’s purchasing decisions and the consequences of their decisions for the environment and society, companies have a strong influence on our rate of progress when it comes to sustainable development.

The challenges of sustainable development

The challenges we face as a society can be broken down into four areas:

We will find sustainable solutions not by considering these four challenges in isolation, but by understanding their underlying interdependencies. In parallel to this, there is a further, three-pronged challenge posed by sustainability: On the one hand, it is important to appreciate individuality and diversity by respecting people’s freedom and uniqueness. Moreover, we will need to develop a collective sense of responsibility such that it does not result in unilateral dictation or even coercion. And finally, we must all acknowledge and accept that things long held as certainties began breaking down many years ago.

Adopting an integral approach to lay a foundation for sustainable development

One method that lends itself to sustainable development in society and the economy is to adopt an integral approach. This concept, which began to gain momentum during the last decade, is basically a model for systematically understanding and explaining the world we live in. One thing that makes it special is its integral approach to life and its focus on life-friendly and practical ideas. In other words, it’s not just “pie in the sky.”

As an approach, it has already found its way into various fields of modern life – including consulting – and is being applied to everyday practice. Experience in areas and disciplines where this approach has already been applied shows that the model makes it possible to reorganize things more comprehensively, effectively, and efficiently. An important pioneer of this method, known as Integral Theory, is the American author Ken Wilber.

Integral Theory is based on four dimensions, or quadrants, which reflect all areas of social experience:

  1. On the Exterior, there is the visible and measurable, for example in the form of changed processes and structures, environmental conditions, and objectively visible behavior, skills, and abilities. This reflects external sustainability.
  2. In the Interior, there is internal sustainability. This addresses changed individual awareness and collective cultural issues pertinent to sustainability, such as: “How do we want to, and how can we live together sustainably and in peace in the future and enjoy greater freedom and justice?”
  3. The I area reflects all individual aspects on the path to sustainability, in terms of both mindset and objective behavior.
  4. The We area refers to collective aspects, both on an interpersonal level but also between tangibles (processes, structures, procedures).

The resulting four quadrants show the levels on which change occurs. If people, firms, or organizations want to develop sustainably, they would be advised to keep all four quadrants in mind and should strive for and shape development on the personal and system level, both externally (structures, processes, behavior, skills) and internally (individual mindset, shared culture). This is certainly a challenge, because there can be major differences between development rates in different areas.

Bringing together sustainability and enjoyment in life

Moving on from the view at the end of the previous century – that sustainability is tantamount to making sacrifices – we now know that ecological sustainability actually can have a lot to do with enjoying life! Addressing positive feelings and combining sustainability with enjoyment in life and fulfilling experiences can inspire and motivate people. Such positive emotions also have a massive impact on our ability to learn. Yes, worst-case scenarios and negative emotions such as anxiety and fear can also be used to teach people lessons quickly – but only in a negative sense. We know this from brain research and educational psychology – fear, pressure, and stress inhibit our thinking and thus stifle creativity. But we need creative solutions to make proper use of our knowledge, our insights, and our ability to engage in dialog, so that we can solve the most pressing problems of our society and economy quickly and sustainably. So it’s important to inject life into sustainability by drawing on positive experiences, stories that come from within, and issues that are tangible for all involved. What this means for organizations and companies is that staff, customers, and other market stakeholders need to be offered novel experiential spaces.

Sustainability management – a core competence of companies

At best, investing time and energy in environmental management and sustainability management in the broadest sense will result in systems (individuals, the economy, or society in general) acquiring genuine meta-competencies – know-how that will also enhance (competitive) skills and resilience in “non-environmental” areas. Unlike most planning and decision-making processes, such meta-competencies are not just about the usual rational approaches of Western society, they also entail emotional intelligence and a process of developing integral awareness. And this is of benefit to society, our children’s children, the Earth we live in, and its finite resources.