The Culpability of the ‘Sustainability Industry’

After ten years of sowing utter confusion, the ‘sustainability industry’ has the temerity to publish a document with the title ‘Acting now for a positive 2018 – preparing for  radical change’; casually dismissing the last ten years as Mervyn King’s  ‘NICE’ years – seemingly oblivious to its part in their creation.

Sustainability is continually used as a noun throughout the document as if it were a physical entity that organisations can achieve, when in any meaningful sense ‘sustainability is something humans can only recognise in retrospect. In reality sustainability arises from ‘to sustain’ – a verb and a ‘doing word’ – a journey of continual improvement, without end.

In the report, on page 13 it talks about ‘improving the quality of life’,  but the sustainability industry has totally ignored the body of knowledge developed over the last half century, preferring to try and reinvent the wheel. This has resulted in a generation of business leaders who do not understand the concept of ‘the costs of less than perfect quality’, critically the risks and costs of business process failures.

Our present predicament can be traced back to this, and both the ‘sustainability industry’ and the quality profession by inference are culpable of failing society. Toyota for instance has avoided this distraction.

Letter published in Green Futures May/June 2001


Quality Defined


I noted with interest your reporting of the EU Environmental Awards and the comment by Environmental Commissioner, Margot Wallstrom that “sustainable development and greater competitiveness go hand in hand” [GF 27, p10]. These awards were appropriately made to companies that have or manage significant environmental impacts.


Most small or medium-sized companies, however, do relatively little to address their environmental impact, despite the effort of projects like SIGMA [see GF 23, p 21]. We need to do more to engage such companies. I am convinced the best way to do so is by integrating sustainability management into quality management – since most businesses have at least some system for the latter, however informal.


But it’s becoming increasingly evident that the traditional, customer-focused definition of quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ is inadequate. We need a new definition. Here are two possible ones that I advance for debate:


1. Quality minimizes the ‘loss to society’ resulting from the creation, use and disposal of products, processes and services.


2. Quality maximizes the life cycle efficiency of products, processes and services.


Viewed in this way, less than perfect quality creates unsustainable systems, which are the basis of the problems being addressed by the SIGMA Project and other initiatives.


An additional benefit of this redefinition of quality will be to re-examine the ways in which the quality and environmental ‘industries’ have become so ‘standards-based’. My definition of quality implies a ‘synergy’ between the supplier and customer rather than compliance. My hope is that the SIGMA Project will become a means to do precisely that.



Derek Deighton


Link to the Report



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s