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  My son Cameron saying goodbye to his car (which we're selling) and his dog Gwennie (who's coming to Kellogg with me).
  My son Cameron saying goodbye to his car (which we're selling) and his dog Gwennie (who's coming to Kellogg with me).

Reconciling Sustainability and Economic Growth
September 9, 2010

We drove my youngest child, Cameron, to college for the start of his freshman year on Saturday; then I spent the rest of the long weekend on final preparations for my big house move from New Jersey to Evanston on Tuesday. It was the end of a busy, bittersweet summer for Cam and me. We were both excited about the next steps in our lives, but also sentimental as we cleaned out and packed up our home of nine years. My goal throughout this process was to downsize and “de-material-ize,” to get rid of the non-essentials.

One of the lessons that we learned from this process is that it takes a huge amount of time and energy to shed things, much more than it does to acquire them. I hope I remember that the next time I am tempted to buy a quick book at the airport, a cool kitchen gadget or piece of pottery that I don’t really need. I hope I remember all of the things that we discarded and donated this summer—things that cost a lot but ultimately yielded little or no sustained personal value.

As an academic, I realize that thought puts me somewhat at odds with traditional models of economic growth. Those models require that for an economy to grow and economic well-being to continue to increase, consumers need to keep buying—either at home and/or abroad. Consumers somewhere need to keep wanting better and cheaper, and when we shed, to reacquire.  We’ve all experienced it—often it’s less expensive to buy new than repair. And the human desire to acquire, as aptly studied by Kellogg professors Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky, is not going away any time soon. Just look at the lifestyle shifts toward high-status spending that have already occurred in China in recent years as sectors of that economy have been transformed.

This makes me think about the issue of sustainability and the challenges facing business and political leaders in the 21st century. I hope that, with our faculty’s research and guidance (see for example, Klaus Weber's recent paper on sustainability as a team effort), the generation of students we’re educating today can help us find new ways to promote economic well-being and growth—ways that don’t require over-consumption and the constant accumulation of things. 

Sustainability means just that—making things last, thinking about long-run economic well-being, not just short-term gratification, short-run cost minimization, and quarterly revenue maximization. It means placing a value now on the intangibles in life and on an uncertain future.

Without exercising foresight around sustainability, this century’s leaders will undoubtedly encounter a new set of social challenges stemming from our current beliefs about economic growth.

I welcome your comments, feedback and ideas at

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