The sustainability revolution: how to do it right

Written by P.A. Tompkins

Professor P.A. Tompkins is a sustainability expert with more than 30 years of experience leading projects at universities, nonprofits, and industrial companies. She currently directs the Sustainable Industrial Revolution program at the University of Florida.

Has our desire to not just survive but thrive dictated a singular focus in the last few decades on industrialization itself?

Consider what economists call a “contained loss.”

In the 1960s, researchers theorized that societies had to either sit back and watch gross domestic product (GDP) go down as a result of resource depletion, or they had to embrace cutting edge techniques.

Dr. Tompkins pioneered empirical experiments demonstrating that states that adopted sustainable practices did not only avoid high levels of poverty, but, over time, their populations began to thrive. As experts in the field of sustainability, we like to use the term “cover the loss” to explain the secondary economic benefits.

Two decades of having more people in the 21st century than the 20th has meant that the concept of loss is, understandably, fading in the minds of many people. As the human condition becomes more complex, the concept of loss is not only relevant but imperative.

“Sustainable industrialization was the undoing of American manufacturing,” said CEO of United Technologies, Greg Hayes, during the CNN CEO Council CEO Summit last year.

Sustainability is a new concept for so many people, but how is it possible that most of the world’s largest economies, and most of the world’s billionaires, are still trying to just survive, let alone thrive?

Where does this disconnect lie?

Product design is often one of the most important factors in the success of a product. However, with the growing complexity of each product, less and less changes are needed to continue the whole product line. So where is this disconnect coming from?

We believe it’s because we are leaving it up to the brand, and not the technology.

Brands have been successful because they’ve been guided by the process and philosophy behind what they were created to do.

The two biggest forces affecting the sustainability of our biggest corporations and the world’s leading billionaires are a lack of technology (and money) and a lack of process. As corporations continue to become more and more heavily regulated with regard to everything from sexual harassment to climate change, they must either seek out more technology in the form of profit center mergers or find a sustainable path for businesses to thrive.

While many success stories have emerged within industry, you don’t have to look far for signs of a sustainable industry today.

The reformation of the apparel industry from being a source of excess to being a highly innovative and sustainable industry has been one of the most remarkable stories in the world. J. Crew, Facebook, Apple, Google, Walmart and many more brands have all reinvented themselves from doing something to being what they do.

There are two ways this has transpired. The first has been due to companies fully developing strategies and offering a full scale supply chain that is driven by the values of sustainability.

The second, and most powerful, is the social (and ethical) transformation of companies that have succeeded in establishing a sustainable business model.

Brands are learning to become not just parts of the bottom line but, for example, a force for good that brings positive change to society, as an integral part of doing business.

While the story is remarkable and there are lessons that can be learned in an ever more interconnected world, as a society, we are still focused on industrialization.

The bottom line is that the sustainable industrial revolution has just gotten started.

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