When Carol Sanford, a business consultant, declared “sustainability is a problem,” more than a few people raised their eyebrows at the Erb Institute’s speaker series Tuesday night.

“It’s actually making things worse,” she said with a grin. “Anybody mad, yet?”

Sanford spoke to a group of about 30 Rackham and Business School students, saying that the problem with businesses going green wasn’t in the idea, but in the implementation. Businesses approach sustainability piece-by-piece rather than stepping back and looking at the problems as a whole, she said.

She said businesses need to consider all components of a place to find its essence and leave behind traditional business practices when determining how to implement a sustainable project.

“Finding out what that essence is allows you to be creative and regenerative in a way you can never be if you’re trying to figure out how to be competitive,” she said.

She said it takes years of looking for the “essence of a place” to understand the effects a business will have on its environment.

Sanford said human minds are trained to “work in pieces” from birth, taking problems individually one after the other. But with sustainability, she said, problems are so interconnected that they have to be assessed by using a common thread.

“We spend a lot of time developing the capacity to see yourself, see your effects, to see what you’re producing, to see the effect you’re having on the communities around you.”

She cited Loreto Bay, Mexico, a struggling city on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, as an example. When local businesses began dying, it took a developer’s realization that the nearby sea houses some of the oldest turtles in the world and that the city’s fauna could be used to promote eco-tourism and new industry for the city.

Rackham student Arthur Peterson, who helped organize the event, said he thought Sanford brought an exciting new perspective to green businesses and management.

“It’s looking not just at individual issues, but at the larger picture,” he said. “It’s good to have someone that keeps pushing us in that direction.”

Other students were more critical of the lecture.

Rackham student Sara Shapiro said she found Sanford’s approach to be “oversimplified.”

“For a small company, this could work. But a large company? I don’t see it,” she said. “Ideally, it’s amazing. I just don’t know how practical it is.”

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