05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sustainability Holism

As established companies adopt sustainability practices and offer up their own green products to the marketplace they would do well to heed Barry Commoner's first law of ecology: Everything connects to everything else. When Commoner, one of the founders of the environmental movement, penned those words in 1971, I don't think he had corporations in mind; he was talking about the interconnectedness of ecosystems. You would never talk about a "sustainable tiger," for instance, because it doesn't make sense. What makes a tiger sustainable is its incorporation into a larger system of interdependent organisms. The same logic, it turns out, holds true in the green marketplace.

I call this phenomenon "sustainability holism" and it has implications for corporate greening efforts both inside and outside the company. For example, take oil major BP's "Beyond Petroleum" re-branding effort. It largely fell apart because of sustainability holism. BP's sunflower logo and solar panels atop its gas stations clashed with the fact that over 90 percent of revenues flowed from oil. The disparity was unsustainable. Even business journals like Fortune criticized it as hypocritical green washing. That may be too harsh because BP did try to build a renewable energy business, but BP Alternative Energy was connected to everything else in the company, and lost out in terms of investment and executive attention to the traditional oil business.

Does this mean established companies should forget sustainability? While there likely are some companies that are incapable of making the transition, most established enterprises are finding opportunities in greening. Success, however, requires thoughtful, long term management thinking. Inauthentic efforts to opportunistically get on the sustainability bandwagon and paint your products "green" are risky. Activists, the press and the blogosphere will scrutinize not just the product, but how it is made and who is making it. And while activist criticisms are rarely a deathblow, they can persistently undermine the credibility of your greening efforts and jeopardize the reputation of your organization.

Managerial humility helps here. No one is clairvoyant enough to imagine all the sustainability implications of a new product or initiative. Smart sustainability managers reach out early on to green thought leaders, and even critics, seeking input. By acknowledging reasonable sustainability shortcomings of a product and committing to resolving them, companies can demonstrate social responsibility and enhance their green credibility.

The Brita water filter pitcher system provides an interesting example of this. A few years ago, marketers repositioned Brita as a sustainable alternative to bottled water and it rapidly gained market share. Activists pointed out a problem, however. Brita's filter cartridges had to be replaced every few months and were not being recycled. Brita was being evaluated on its full impact, not just the water bottles it saved from the landfill. Recognizing this larger connection, Brita managers needed a solution. They forged one through a collaboration with plastics recycler Preserve and Whole Foods Market that allowed Brita users to return old cartridges on their next visit to the store. And by solving the recycling problem, they enhanced the holistic sustainability performance of their product and the credibility of their green solution.

As more established companies head down the green path, they will find themselves subject to the demands of sustainability holism both inside and outside the organization. Customers will say, "We like your new green product, but what about the other stuff you're selling?" Employees inside the company will ask, "Are we walking our green marketing talk?" Activists will want to know if your inputs are sustainably harvested. Green can't be put into a corporate sustainability silo. As Commoner observed, you'll find it connected to everything you do.