Sustainability Helix


Many years ago, the exploratory efforts of a large US manufacturer were shut-down at their beginnings when a well-known sustainability guru got up to address the assembled task force comprised of every division of the company. This was a company that was serious about changing their products and processes as well as their goals and mission, as needed. In order to energize this group at the start of their 2-day summit, this guru decide to motivate out of fear: his first words were (something like): “What you’re doing is hurting people and if you don’t stop, I will tell everyone.”

The next words spoken in the meeting room were from a man who stood-up, interrupted, and announced to all in attendance, “This meeting is over. Now, leave.”

And, that company, to this day, has never approached sustainability again.

Though well-meaning, this guru didn’t understand something critical about business: that law prevents companies from acknowledging a problem lest they become immediately responsible for all of the effects of that problem from then on. Had a customer, partner, or vendor later sued the company for a specific issue, and found-out about this meeting, they would be afforded a nearly sure win.

Corporations are an important, but odd organism and need to be given tools that work under their specific legal and organizational situation. This is why the Sustainability Helix can be so powerful. At it’s heart, this is a corporate or organizational-level tool, not a product or service level tool. It doesn’t help you understand whether this product is better than that one but how the organization, itself, is progressing (if at all) along sustainable and restorative lines. You can’t perform an LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) for an organization—well, and not discover everything you need and want to know about it. Likewise, an SIA (Social Impact Analysis) won’t uncover everything, either and both run the very same risk as the story above: that companies can’t legally acknowledge harm.

The Sustainability Helix was developed by students at Presidio Graduate School back when it was called Presidio World College. These students worked with Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism Solutions to define the Helix. Most relevant is that the Sustainability Helix describes five stages through which an organization progresses from least to most sustainable performance:

  • Stage 0: Unsustainable (“Business as Usual”)

  • Stage 1: Exploration

  • Stage 2: Experimentation

  • Stage 3: Leadership

  • Stage 4: Restoration

In other words, the worst an organization can score is “no better than any other.” This zero baseline is critical since there is no negative score—so organizations can’t be declared knowledgeably negligent for their behavior. And, there is only one direction to move, and that’s toward sustainability. The crux of the progress is that all parts of the organization need to start working together, progressively more closely, in order to move up the scale. That’s true of any change in an organization, in fact.

There is more detailed description of the Helix in my book, Design is the Solution. In addition, you can download the tool, itself (see the links in the right column) as it has a LOT of detailed information about how an organization’s divisions and roles can assess their current behavior, move toward new goals and better impacts, and better work in conjunction with their peers. One of my favorite books about this process, is Leading Change Toward Sustainability, by Bob Doppelt. Though not specifically about the Sustainability Helix, it is a step-by-step guide toward sustainability change in nearly any kind of organization. In fact, if you just replace the word “sustainability” throughout it with anything else you want to change about a company, it’s still an excellent workbook for that.

Also, note: the Helix is built into the structure of the Sustainability Scorecard.

Download the Tool:
Sustainability Helix at Natural Capitalism Solutions.

Read about it in: Design is the Solution.

Other Resources:
Leading Change Toward Sustainability, by Bob Dopplet.