Adios, Sustainababble. Welcome, Flourishing and Restoration

(3BL Media and Just Means)- Go Green. Do Good and Do Well. Recycle, upcycle, fair trade, organic, carbon credits, conscious capitalism, slow living, the triple bottom line and corporate social responsibility. We’ve all heard these slogans, phrases and trendy words. They could all be summed up into one word: sustainababble. Sustainababble, according to Robert Engelman, President of the Worldwatch Institute, is defined as “a cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool.”

Have we truly lost value in the way we talk about sustainability in business? What is all this sustainababble worth? How can those of us in the business of sustainability truly accomplish any of this jargon if we don’t agree about what any of it means? We have defined the word, ‘sustainability’ and what it means to operationalize sustainability in business in thousands of ways. So, the more important question is this: if we lack global unanimity about what it means to live in a sustainable world, how then, will we ever live in one? These are the questions with which so many of us, including forerunners like Donella Meadows, Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, and Miriam MacGillis have struggled. Cary Gaunt, Bill Baue and Mark McElroy, “restoration professionals,” expert sustainability consultants and professors in the MBA in Managing Sustainability program at Marlboro College Graduate School have decided it’s time for clarity.

Gaunt says that she and her colleagues are in the “business of restoration.” The bulk of her career was spent leading watershed and other environmental restoration efforts around the country for Science Applications International Corporation – a multifaceted technology, science, and engineering firm supporting clients across all sectors of the U.S. economy. From this perspective, Gaunt figuratively and literally looks upstream.

The question at the back of my mind is, “What are the root causes of unsustainability and what are the most effective ways of addressing these problems in order to restore places like watersheds, ecosystems, and the human communities with which they are associated?” This is not just my question, but those of many who deal with environmental challenges,” says Gaunt.

After many of their students asked them to unpack all of the sustainababble and provide a meaningful definition for sustainability, Gaunt, Baue and McElroy came together to conceptualize a “Sustainability Continuum,” a business, leadership framework that explains the evolution of sustainability and its important normative developments. As pictured above, the Sustainability Continuum identifies six, distinct phases of sustainability thought and practice: Kinship, Conquest, Mitigation, Sustainability, Flourishing, and Emergence. Although presented as a chronology, Gaunt, Baue and McElroy consciously shaped the Continuum as a circle to reflect the evolutionary emergence of sustainability consciousness and action – it is not stepwise, nor linear. Rather, many of the stages presented in the continuum occur concurrently and sometimes people and businesses advance along the continuum, but circumstances cause a step back.

“One benefit of the Sustainability Continuum is that businesses can locate themselves on the Continuum. It presents an opportunity to identify current perspectives and practices and identify gaps and opportunities for growth,” explains McElroy.

“We [restoration professionals] have tried almost all modes along the Sustainability Continuum,” add Gaunt. “But when you look upstream, you find yourself encountering poor farming practices, out-of-compliance industrial dischargers, poorly managed urban storm water runoff, out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and other sources, and so much more. What drives all of this is consumerism. But, if you look behind consumerism, you find the human mind and heart.”

The Sustainability Continuum

Kinship, Conquest & Mitigation

Gaunt, Baue and McElroy explain the Kinship stage of the Sustainability Continuum as a time of the past, when humans were deeply connected to the natural world in ways that were often in accord with ecological cycles.

The Conquest stage, as it sounds, was when the exploitation of the earth and human societies began. This period was marked by increased alienation from the natural world, a growing anthropocentric worldview, organized and aggressive colonialism, and the advent of consumerism, This is also the period where the scope of sustainability as an issue grew explicitly beyond the realm of environmental impacts to encompass the social and economic effects of human activity as well, a precursor to the concept of the Triple Bottom Line.

The period of Mitigation is marked by the establishment of regulatory controls in society and commerce, the rise of eco-efficiency concepts and adaptation initiatives based largely on engineering and other technological approaches. Rather than change human behavior, this was (and still is) a stage in which simply lessening and adapting to the unwanted effects of consumerism constitute most of what passes for best practice in commerce – a step in the right direction, perhaps, but still not sustainability in the more rigorous sense of the term.

Baue refers to it as moving from an extractive mentality into an incremental or “do less bad” regime, with early signs of recognition of the need to operate within planetary ecological boundaries while bolstering our social boundaries. McElroy believes we live in the tail end of the Mitigation stage and are at the dawn of the Sustainability stage. He says that corporations must adopt and use context-based sustainability (CBS)--an approach to management that takes thresholds in the world explicitly into account instead of ignoring them--in order for us to move further into the Sustainability Stage.

“What it will take to move into the Flourishing stage, which I personally view as nothing more than a higher form of the Sustainability stage is the wholesale adoption of CBS.  It will not be until we actively and consciously manage our impacts on vital capitals, that is, relative to empirical limits in their stocks and flows, that Sustainability and Flourishing can be achieved,” says McElroy.


According to Gaunt, Baue and McElroy, although sustainability language entered the lexicon much earlier, the effective practice of sustainability is still very much in its early stages of development. The Sustainability Continuum defines the Sustainability stage as one where best practices must be considered when attempting to manage or assess the effects of human activity on vital resources. Gaunt, Baue and McElroy look to forerunners in the sustainability movement like Donella Meadows who in 1972 made the statement that there are “finite limits to growth!” They also believe that context-based sustainability (CBS) is the mechanism for which businesses can authentically call themselves sustainable.

McElroy uses CBS with many of his clients, like Cabot Creamery, helping them to define sustainability standards of performance against their actual social, environmental and economic impacts.

“The CBS methodology I use has evolved to a form called the MultiCapital Scorecard, a codified implementation of CBS that makes it possible to operationalize the Triple Bottom Line.  It is the practice of CBS which reveals limitations in natural and other capitals in the world that organizations must be aware of if their operations and supply chains are to be sustainable,” McElroy explains.

Flourishing & Emergence

Gaunt, Baue and McElroy define the stages of Flourishing and Emergence by this question: “How can businesses move beyond an ethic of doing no harm to one of creating a more positive and flourishing--the restoration and regeneration of natural resources or consciously returning more than is taken--future?”

“This is the great challenge of businesses today, to not only comply with natural and human vital capital limits (i.e., net zero), but to consciously return more than is taken (i.e., “net positive”) and to be proactive in envisioning and creating a resilient, sustainable, and thriving future,” says Gaunt, Baue and McElroy.

The Sustainability Continuum uses the Emergence stage as placeholder for things to come with the hopes that it will be a period of positive development.

“The most important concept for business to recognize is that current business models that operate outside our ecological and social thresholds will not endure, requiring a re-evaluation and re-imagination of business models that respect these limits as a launching pad for flourishing into abundance and prosperity,” says Baue.

Gaunt brings it back to the attitude of the heart, reminding us that it takes an inspired people to create a new way of being.

“How do we change hearts and minds in a way that leads to sustainable actions?” asks Gaunt. “Those who study this question realize that it requires a wide range of multi-and interdisciplinary approaches, but that science and technology and rules and regulations alone will not get us there.”

Defining sustainability as flourishing removes sustainababble and keeps us rooted in generosity, beauty, and gratitude. Thank you Gaunt, Baue and McElroy for this truth. And thanks to the forerunners who continue to pave the way.

Credit: Thanks to Cary Gaunt, Bill Baue and Mark McElroy for their contributions and writing for this piece.

Read about Marlboro College Graduate School’s MBA in Managing for Sustainability. Learn about context-based sustainability and the MultiCapital Scorecard.