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The Real Meaning of Integrated Sustainability

August 11, 2014

© 2014 by Alan AtKisson (originally published at and in WaveFront)

For more than 20 years, I’ve been among those promoting a more integrated approach to sustainability. It’s not just about the environment and resources, I keep reminding people. It’s about systems: understanding their interconnections, the viability of their long-term trends, their limits.

And sustainable development is about changing systems … for the better.

In my books, articles, training courses, even my songs, I’ve hit that message over and over, for decades. I invented the “Sustainability Compass” to try to make the links between nature, economy, society, and human wellbeing more simple and intuitive. On very old YouTube videos, you can watch me lecturing government officials on why sustainability is not the same thing as environmentalism, or singing “The System Zoo” to get people rockin’ to the beat of system dynamics.

But lately, I’ve realized that this is a message I don’t have to work so hard at broadcasting. People get it now. I know that, because they are starting to lecture me back, on the same topic.

My work as a consultant allows me the opportunity to talk with senior officials and executives, in many places around the world. Here is what they are telling me lately:

1. “We’ve gone through a paradigm shift on sustainable development in the last year. It’s no longer seen as an environmental thing. It’s fully integrated into the way we think and plan around economic growth.”

2. “From my perspective, countries now understand that sustainable development is really an integrated concept, and they are trying to figure out how to manage that integration in policy terms, across all ministries.”

3. “We don’t want to just do CSR and sustainability in a cosmetic way, with some social and environmental initiatives in the community. We want to integrate it into our core business.”

Those are real quotes to me from real people, but the signs go well beyond personal anecdotes.

For example, a recent McKinsey study (references below) found that sustainability continues to rise on the agenda of the world’s companies and CEOs, with 36% now calling it one of their top three priorities — and 13% calling it their top priority, up from 5% last year. This is happening because leaders are “getting it” that sustainability is not about the environment; it’s about the long-term viability of their organizations, companies, and nations.

Yes, we have massive environmental and resource challenges, and these are growing. But you don’t solve big problems like that with “environmental programs.” You solve them with major changes in economic policy, social behavior, manufacturing processes, and other pieces of our “core business” — corporate, governmental, or societal.

And to do that, you have to know how to drive big change. Increasingly, transformation is the jargon of the day. (Promoting transformative and not just incremental change is actually policy in Germany, for example, when it comes to their international work on climate change. I recently worked with a major think-tank there, which had the task of explaining the difference between the two.)

Dealing with transformative change in complex systems inevitably leads people to wrestle with two other huge, demanding topics: mindsets and capacities. People won’t help transformation to happen if (a) they don’t think it is necessary, and/or (b) they don’t think it’s possible. People like me spend a lot of our working time communicating both the necessity and the possibility of re-doing and re-building a lot of what previous generations did and built, in unsustainable ways.

But we also are increasingly consumed with the question of capacity. This slippery term does not just mean knowledge or skill — though heaven knows, we need a lot more of both to do the things that need to be done.

Capacity’s original definition has to do with space: how much can something hold? How much can we, as human beings, hold?

The challenges that sustainability works to address are huge — climate change, poverty, youth unemployment, ethnicity-fueled conflict, the health of the seas…. These challenges have intellectual, technical, social, and emotional dimensions. To address them properly, we have to “hold” all those dimensions in our minds, as well as our hearts. We need brilliant insights and solutions, yes; but we also need courage, patience, and a whole lot of love.

Integrated sustainability is, to my great relief, finally becoming a common notion and even a reality. As I write this, the world (meaning here, the United Nations) is even negotiating its first-ever set of integrated, globally applicable Sustainable Development Goals. Progress never seems fast enough. But I believe that, all in all, we are on the right path.

Whether we will succeed or not, in time, is always the subject of great debate among my scientific friends. But I am convinced about one thing: the more seriously we pursue a fully integrated approach to sustainability, not only do we increase our chances of creating a better world.

We also increase our chances of becoming better people.

– Alan AtKisson

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I invite you to visit our new website at
and please consider joining one of our upcoming professional development opportunities

Master Class in Change for Sustainability (Netherlands):

One-day workshop with Axel Klimek on transformational change at the annual ISSP conference (USA):  Link

Learn the AtKisson / ISIS tools, coaching, and leadership for sustainability — 3 modules in six days — at Sasin business school in Bangkok (Thailand):  Link


Introduction to the Sustainability Compass (with academic references):

“The System Zoo” (live video version, recorded in the year 2000):

“Sustainability’s Strategic Worth,” Sheila Bonini and Anne-Titia Bové, McKinsey & Co., July 2014:

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