Context, Put Into Practice

Sustainability’s Learning Curve: A Deeper Look

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Some further reflections on the Sustainability Transformation's Learning Curve[1].

A - the illusion curve
Sustainability is a learning process and today pretty much every company contemplating sustainability is somewhere along the A curve. There is learning happening here, but it lacks vital perspective and an accurate context. Time spent in the A curve is merely building the scaffolding before the real work can begin in the C curve. This illusion curve is where sustainability remains a stubbornly low organizational priority and illusions of progress suffice. The curve feeds on marginalized practitioners and isolated ownership of corporate sustainability—it is not yet seen as everyone’s job.

The dangers of misplaced optimism
The top of the A curve approaching point B represents a phase of naïve and grave overconfidence as seen in most corporate reports today. Policymakers and practitioners seem assured that getting the reporting right will solve our problems. Reporting has a role in the learning process but this role presently lacks context and integrity[2]. When not context-based, this reporting contributes to the self-satisfying overconfidence that imprisons organizations in the A curve (i.e. ‘Knowing enough to be dangerous’). The same old premises are at work.

When reporting does not explicitly address perspectives listed in the ‘a-ha experience’, then the concept of sustainability is not grasped at all. Knowingly or unknowingly, it will remain a proxy for business as usual until blindsided by the realities of point B. Such reports are contextually flawed[3], and the business has no credible basis for claims regarding sustainability. Companies travelling the A curve should avoid using the term sustainability in any of their materials or publicity.
B epiphany valley
For those enjoying the heady peak of the A curve—thinking that they are winning at the sustainability game—reaching point B can involve degrees of trauma and despair. In fact, B is not a singular event, but an iterative process of descent (yellow line) as understanding deepens. This rapid loss of confidence which accompanies the ‘a-ha experience’ can trigger feelings of angst and grief.
“We are being ruined by the best efforts of people who are doing the wrong thing.” 
― W. Edwards Deming
As reality sets in we realize that we are not where we thought we were – and definitely not where we need to be. Not the time to panic, the process of ‘integrating knowledge and know-how’ and broader psychological ownership[4] of authentic sustainability begins. Given the dire state of global overshoot[5], the priority for A curve organizations must be to hit B as soon as possible and get through to the real sustainability work of the C curve (aka the authenticity curve).
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C - the authenticity curve
Sustainability Transformation's Learning Curve is not an abstraction, but an actionable challenge. We need to be asking ourselves what is keeping our organization from confronting B and moving into the C curve where the real learning begins. This means digging in and identifying root causes and barriers to change. What are our obstacles and what should we be working on to get our organization into the C curve (i.e. into the ‘A-ha experience’)?
Begin with questions
The C curve represents the work of authentic sustainabilitythe integration of knowledge and know-how. If a company can agree that reducing unsustainability will not lead to sustainability, then they must ask themselves:
  • What is our authentic sustainability context?

  • Accepting this context, what is now our leader’s intent? – i.e. goal, vision, ‘True North’ etc.

  • What is preventing us from operating in a sustainable manner? – i.e. what policies, processes, procedures, tasks, etc., must change for sustainability to be systematic in our daily work?

  • Will the money spent by our company this year move us closer to sustainability or further from it?

  • What key decisions will be made in the coming year and what do we need to know to be confident that they will be right for the business AND sustainability?

  • How will we continuously share and apply new sustainability knowledge across our enterprise?

If we fail to engage with these questions, then we will remain captive in the A curve working on incremental unsustainability.
Please post your thoughts in the comments below on the challenges of getting through B and into the C curve. Not comfortable posting your thoughts here? – then please email me in confidence and I will generalize all feedback in a future  article:
My thanks to the following folks who provided insightful comments on the original LinkedIn post of Sustainability Transformation’s Learning Curve: Mark Upton, Catherine Reynolds, Benjamin Casteillo, and Ann Duffy.
[1] Curve adapted from The Leader's Handbook by Peter Scholtes; (1997) which attributes the original Transformation’s Learning Curve to W. Edwards Deming. 
[2] Ref: The Lost Decade of Failed Sustainability Standards by Bill Baue (2024) 
[3] A 2016 survey of 40,000 company CSR reports, found that a mere 5% made references to the notion of ecological limits. Is Earth recognized as a finite system in corporate responsibility reporting? Anders Bjørn el al; Journal of Cleaner Production (2016)
[4] Psychological ownership refers to the state in which individuals feel as though the target, whether material or immaterial, or a piece of it is “theirs.” Source: Cultivating Sustainability Thinkers: Analyzing the Routes to Psychological Ownership in Local Business Units of Multinational Enterprises (MNEs); Martina Kurki and Merja Lähdesmäki (2023)
[5] Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries; Richardson et al; Science (2023) 



Jim Banks

Jim is a Sustainability Advisor based in Montreal.