The Complexity of Sustainability: A Simple, Yet In-Depth Look

When it comes to the topic of sustainability, one of the unfortunate realities we have to contend with is that it is complex. Sustainability is a broad spectrum that can’t be painted with a single brush as it covers everything from extreme poverty to carbon emissions.  The intricate layers and interconnectivity inherent in sustainability, by design, create a complexity that can be daunting. For many, this complexity, rather than being a deterrent, is the brilliant selling point for jumping into the field. Strategy, transformation, scenario planning – these are all familiar territories for most businesses. But add sustainability into the mix, and you’re dealing with complexity that requires in-depth work and analysis.

The Intricate Web of Sustainability

Sustainability isn’t just about recycling or reducing carbon emissions; it’s about creating systems that can continue to operate indefinitely without depleting resources or harming the environment. This involves taking into account every aspect of a business, from sourcing materials to waste disposal, and finding ways to make each step more sustainable. It’s a puzzle with countless pieces, each one interconnected, and changing one piece can have ripple effects throughout the entire system.

To Make My Point

When people ask me what I do professionally, and I say, “I work in sustainability,” they usually think I am an eco-warrior. It isn’t that simple. Let’s make it muddier.  At this point, pretty much everyone has at least heard of the SDGs but seeing their interconnectedness can be a bit tricky.

I have put together a comprehensive illustration showcasing the interconnected nature of sustainability, as outlined by our 17 goals. The chart below is presented as a matrix where each of the 17 SDGs is listed both along the left-hand side and five of them on top as row headers. Note, this is an example, so I only did a few… This format allows each goal to intersect with every other goal, highlighting the complex web of interactions and dependencies between them. Now obviously, there are a lot more connection points, and anyone who has heard me speak knows that I am more interested in addressing root cause, but that is for another post…

A matrix of the 17 SDGs and interconnectedness.

Let’s take a closer look at a few intersections:

  1. No Poverty (SDG 1) and Quality Education (SDG 4): Here, you’ll see a note indicating that education is a key pathway out of poverty. This intersection emphasizes how improving access to quality education can directly contribute to poverty reduction.
  2. Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6) and Good Health and Well-being (SDG 3): This cell highlights the crucial role that access to clean water and proper sanitation plays in maintaining good health, thereby underlining the direct connection between these goals.
  3. Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7) and Climate Action (SDG 13): In this intersection, the focus is on how the promotion of affordable and clean energy sources is integral to addressing climate change, showcasing the synergy between sustainable energy practices and climate action initiatives.

Each cell in the table above offers a snapshot like this, revealing how progress or challenges in one area can significantly impact outcomes in another. The matrix serves not just as a tool for understanding the sustainability challenges (or opportunities) in isolation but also as a demonstration of how these goals are intrinsically linked in the broader context of sustainable development.

Seeing this chart for the first time, you’d likely be struck by the complexity and the scale of the challenge it represents. It visually encapsulates the idea that actions taken towards one goal can have ripple effects across many others, both positively and negatively. This interconnectedness is important to understanding sustainability as a holistic concept, where economic, environmental, and social factors are deeply intertwined.

The Challenge and Appeal of Complexity

The complexity of sustainability as a focus is both a challenge and an appeal. It makes implementing sustainability measures a challenge because it requires a deep understanding of the business, its supply chains, its impact on the environment, society, and the potential consequences of any changes. It requires careful planning, constant monitoring, and ongoing adjustments. It’s not something that can be achieved overnight or with a one-size-fits-all approach.

But also, this complexity is what makes sustainability so fascinating and rewarding. It’s a field that’s constantly evolving, with new challenges and opportunities arising all the time. It’s a chance to think creatively, to innovate, to make a real difference in the world. It’s a chance to be part of something bigger than oneself, to contribute to a more sustainable future for all.

Weaving Our Way Through Sustainability

So, here we are, staring at this complex web of sustainability thinking, “Wow, this is a lot.” But guess what? That’s exactly where the magic happens. This isn’t just a bunch of goals on a chart; it’s a roadmap to a future we all want to be part of.

Think of it like a giant puzzle. Every piece – whether it’s about cutting down pollution, making sure everyone gets a fair shot at education, or keeping our rivers clean – fits together to create this amazing picture. And the best part? We all get to put the pieces in place.

This whole sustainability thing? It’s not just about being ‘green’. It’s about coming up with super cool ideas that make our world better and the good news is that there are so many areas that need our attention so everyone has an opportunity to pitch in.  The bad news is that there are so many areas that need our attention. This is a chance to roll up our sleeves, think outside the box, and really get our hands dirty (sometimes literally).

When we make a change in one area, it’s like a domino effect – it starts to make things better in other places too.


Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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