My journey with Systems Thinking and Sustainability Trevor hoeg

I was signing up for my last semester of classes before graduation and the last requirement I had to fulfill was my service learning slot. There were many options available so I decided to look into something that I figured would be pushing the limits of my knowledge and comfort zone but also not too difficult. I looked at the available options in the Environmental Studies department and found one called Systems Thinking and Sustainability. It seemed interesting enough and had a pretty cool name as well so I went for it. I will admit that when I signed up for the class I thought I was getting into something along the lines of planting gardens to help people feed themselves. The class description said nothing about this at all and it was all in my head, so when I got the syllabus in an email I was pretty shocked to find out what was really going to be discussed.

First Impressions

Excitement was the only word that could be used to describe the first day of class. The classroom was located in Grainger Hall and for some reason it always makes me feel like I am really going places in the world whenever I am there. The feeling must come from the people walking around in professional attire, or maybe just the fact that the building has 'School of Business' on it. Either way, I felt special there and was excited to continue my last first week of classes. When we started to look at the syllabus, I began to see how mistaken I was with my expectations of the class. The class looked to be a lot more business centered than I had expected and had absolutely none of the garden planting that I was looking forward to. To be honest, I was extremely overwhelmed with the ideas of systems thinking and sustainability. I had no idea what they meant and didn't know how I could possibly pass the class if I was already so lost on the first day. Despite my initial feelings for the class, I decided that I would not quit and would stay in the class to learn as much as I could about these foreign ideas.

I did not come into the class with any knowledge of what either systems thinking or sustainability was. I had some business background from some of my consumer science classes but that was about it. I didn't know it in the beginning of the semester, but my Consuming Happiness class did the most work in preparing me for the material discussed in class. The conscious consumption unit was the perfect introduction to a lot of the ideas that we discussed in the early weeks of Systems Thinking and Sustainability. I had never thought of my Consuming Happiness class as one that would give me any relevant information to my other classes.

My Introduction to Systems Thinking

I was mainly introduced to systems thinking through some of the pre-class work that we did one week. One of the assigned materials was a video titled "Systems thinking: a cautionary tale (cats in Borneo)" and I think that this video did an awesome job of introducing the importance of systems thinking. It describes how a solution to one problem can actually cause many more problems if it is not thought out well enough. The video was a little comical with its cartoon style drawings, but it still talked about a problem that a lot of people run into every day. I became very curious to see if anyone had thought of business ideas or practices that take systems thinking into account.

We then had a reading for that same week titled "Overview of Systems Thinking" by Daniel Aronson. It was through this reading that I really got a grasp on how systems thinking actually worked and also how it can be applied to the world we live in. It is one thing to talk about how everything is connected, but it is a completely different task to implement the idea. I liked the example of pest management with farm crops because it was an easy concept that most everyone would know about at least a little. The article introduced the idea of Integrated Pest Management, which I had obviously never heard of. The practice of Integrated Pest Management uses predators of the crop eating pests to reduce the damage to the crops. This also helps to reduce possible soil and water pollution, which is a big concern right now with pesticide use. The practice of using systems thinking is not an easy one, but I know that it is extremely important if we are truly to fix the worlds problems.

Patagonia the Great

Looking around campus, it was hard to go a block or two without seeing at least a couple people wearing a Patagonia brand product. Due to a lack of fashion knowledge (or maybe just awareness in general?), I had never heard of the brand before so I decided to ask my good friend Google for some information. After doing some perusing on their website, I found a fleece that I really liked. Luckily the price tag associated with said fleece stopped me from buying it, because my will power certainly was not going to help at all. Over a period of a couple months I mulled over whether I should buy the fleece and one day noticed the companies plans for black Friday that year. I thought back to the conscious consumption unit from my Consuming Happiness class and decided that if I was truly going to buy that fleece, that would be the day to do it. The money I used to pay for my fleece went to grass roots environmental groups and I did not feel any regret for what I had done. I felt good that I got a great fleece and also did something good at the same time.

Little did I know that Patagonia would be the poster child for good companies and products in this class. After reading the case study on how Patagonia came to be and what some of their practices are, I feel even better about buying that fleece. I never knew a company could do so much for the environment and the world. It was crazy to me that I had never heard of a company that many people in class spoke so highly of. I like to think that learning about Patagonia helped push me over the edge with shopping for products that are actually good. There are so many companies out in the world that sell products that just aren't good, whether they be made through sweat shops or are bad for the environment. I have started to look at the brands of clothes I wear and what fully goes into make their products. Being a full fledged conscious consumer is not something that anyone can do overnight, especially a college student with a tight budget, but I am starting to make a habit of really looking for products that do a little more than give me a bit of happiness after buying them.

B-corps and business for good

When we learned about Patagonia, we were also introduced to another type of company called a B-corp. This was yet another example of something that I did not know even existed before coming to this class. I think it is amazing that there are companies out in the world that are not only dedicated to doing good with their business, but also holding themselves up to a high standard. We had Alana come in to talk to us about Yumbutter and how the company was built with the idea of helping others from the beginning. Her presentation was really fun to listen to, but also extremely informative. I loved that we got to see someone from a real B corps certified company (and also taste some delicious nut butters in the process!).

In class we had a lot of discussion about whether we believed that business could be the change that we need in the world. I think that businesses might not be the change, but they can definitely let people know that change is possible and that it also works. Of course every company can not be structured like a B corp, but they can use their power to promote better ideas for their workforce, community, and even environment. In today's day and age people are connected to businesses more than ever through social media. Through one Facebook post or one tweet, a business can reach millions of people instantly. They can use this to their advantage and share new ideas on how to be a better you or to better do something for others. Millennials are coming of age to have a lot of power and a large chunk of the money, and it is this generation that is really going for the pro social and environmental changes.

"If you don't understand the inter-relatedness of things, solutions often cause more problems"

Socially responsible investing and mutual companies and ESOP's... oh my!

It is obvious that not every company can be a B corp, but there are other ways that companies can do good for others. Throughout the semester we learned about different ways companies can support people. Whether it be helping people invest their money in socially responsible companies like Baird, putting clients first like Northwestern Mutual, or using an employee stock ownership program (ESOP) like ETC. I really appreciated learning about the different formats/ benefits a company can have in relation to doing good. I had heard of socially responsible investing in my Consuming Happiness class I mentioned previously, but had not looked into it very much. The things Mary Strickland talked about when she came to class really inspired me to look at the different opportunities I have to put my money where it will do some good for the world. It makes me happy to know that socially responsible investing is growing in popularity and that people do not have to sacrifice profit to do so.

It was refreshing to listen to Ron Joelson talk about how they think about money over at Northwestern Mutual. The fact that they focus their investments and the managing of their policies on benefiting their policy holders and not anyone else is something that I thought all companies should do. It doesn't have to be only insurance companies that do this either. Every company should put its main priority on ensuring that their customers have the best product for them and their surroundings. If the consumer doesn't know that certain products they buy are bad, then as a producer/ seller companies should help the consumer find a better product. Dick Titus came in to talk to us about his company and how they recently created their ESOP program. He said that there was no noticeable difference in their behavior since the start of the ESOP but as we talked about in class, it would be interesting to see if any change occurs in a few years. Based on different readings we had, employee owned companies seemed to do very well so I am surprised it is not as widespread as I thought it would be.

Going forward

At first I thought this class was going to paint a dark picture for the world because we talked about a lot of the problems that are occurring, but I see now that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are so many different ways that companies, or even people themselves, can make a change and do something good. I feel a lot more aware of what is going on in the world and also how I can play a part in it.

Credits:

Created with images by HerryLawford - "The City" • Snufkin - "book education paper" • AlexBor - "apple apple inc macbook" • shimelle - "wisconsin school of business" • Hans - "glasses read learn" • EarlRShumaker - "158" • Menswear Market - "Patagonia Better Sweater" • Connygatz - "sun nature sea grass" • LenaSevcikova - "building reflection window" • wobogre - "nature landscape field"

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