How to end sustainability-as-usual in 2024? Change the zeitgeist.

As we step into 2024, it’s a pivotal moment to contemplate ending sustainability-as-usual. This article suggests that while systemic changes are necessary for this transformation, companies have a vital role in reshaping the cultural zeitgeist surrounding sustainability. By embracing a hacker mindset, nurturing enthusiasm, and implementing impactful strategies, companies possess the power to redefine the prevailing cultural narrative on sustainability.

Raz Godelnik
8 min readJan 2, 2024
Credit: Richard Eriksson

What’s on your mind at the beginning of the year? For me, it’s sustainability-as-usual or more precisely, the end of it.

From my perspective, the demise of sustainability-as-usual is inevitable. This was my observation the first time I wrote about this term in 2018, when I further explored it in my 2021 book (‘Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach), and is still my belief now, as we enter 2024.

Why? First, because the science clearly shows a dissonance between the preservation of safe and just planetary boundaries and our existing economic paradigm. Second, it is also clear that the approach companies take to address their environmental and social impacts is not working. These efforts, which I describe as sustainability-as-usual, are largely confined within an antiquated and unsustainable shareholder capitalism framework. Consequently, they inadequately tackle the core sustainability issues, leading to slow and insufficient changes.

Therefore, the question regarding the end of sustainability-as-usual is not ‘if’ but ‘when.’

Sustainability-as-usual has remained a dominant mindset

Nearly three years ago, I suggested that “the end of sustainability-as-usual may be closer than we think.” In an article exploring a change framework outlined in my book, I delineated four conditions or domains that need to change to break away from sustainability-as-usual: Law, social norms, markets, and organizational culture. Within each domain, I presented examples signaling a potential departure from sustainability-as-usual (see the figure below). My hope was that these examples signify a growing momentum toward ending sustainability-as-usual.

However, almost three years later, sustainability-as-usual remains as dominant as it was in 2021. As we step into 2024, sustainability actions within businesses are commonplace, yet these efforts are still subjected to a shareholder capitalism mindset. Essentially, companies continue engaging in sustainability initiatives as long as they broadly align with the primacy of profit maximization or do not significantly deviate from it. Primarily, companies take voluntary actions to maintain maximum control over ‘greening up their act,’ ultimately conforming to what feels comfortable rather than what is necessary.

I’d like to emphasize that departing from sustainability-as-usual demands systemic changes that may seem beyond companies’ direct influence. As detailed in my abovementioned change framework (which draws on Lessig’s New Chicago School’s framework), moving away from sustainability-as-usual requires for the most part changes in the environment in which companies operate (i.e., laws, social norms, and markets), — elements that companies might seemingly have little impact on. However, this doesn’t imply that companies lack a crucial role in driving an end to sustainability-as-usual. Let me explain how.

My research into frameworks for system transformation (chapter 8 in my book) suggests that the necessary changes in the four conditions/domains need to be supported by a shift in the mental model dominating corporate sustainability. In other words, we can’t end sustainability-as-usual without changing the mental model supporting it, which I describe as an updated version of shareholder capitalism, or ‘shareholder capitalism 2.0.’

We need companies to change the zeitgeist

At the same time, perhaps it may be easier to think about it in terms of a cultural shift that is needed to support the departure from sustainability-as-usual. In other words, the zeitgeist needs to change. The term ‘zeitgeist,’ meaning “the spirit of the time,” allows us to expand our grasp of sustainability by using a cultural lens, considering sustainability-as-usual as an expression of a broader cultural characteristic of a specific period.

This notion aligns with the perspective advocated by scholars like Prof. Andy Hoffman, emphasizing that an effective response to the climate crisis demands a shift in our cultural beliefs. This sentiment is also echoed in climate activism as Bill McKibben explains: “For decades now, when asked about the point of one climate protest or another, I’ve usually said something to the effect of: we fight to change the zeitgeist, people’s sense of what is normal and natural and obvious.”

This is where we need business. I believe companies are critical to changing the zeitgeist surrounding sustainability. They had a critical role in shaping the current cultural perspective on sustainability, and they can — and should — have a pivotal role in transforming it. This might not be necessarily their usual forte, as companies are more accustomed to being tasked to better understand, tap into, and align themselves with existing zeitgeist (aka product-zeitgeist fit). However, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for companies that have actively influenced our way of life for over a century.

Let’s be clear that there is not a clear recipe for changing a zeitgeist. As Monika Krause points out: “It can emerge slowly or suddenly, in one place or in several at the same time. It can grow to include the entirety of the social space, or it can remain limited in reach. It can end suddenly or become part of common sense for centuries; it might transmute and live on in different forms.” Nevertheless, I’d like to offer three key courses of action that companies can pursue in 2024 and beyond to drive a shift in the current zeitgeist:

1. The signal: Make a statement

Sustainability in business, for good or worse, is very technical, encompassing numerous actions, some more material, some not so much. Yet, what we need in all of this noise are clear signals that indicate the shift to a new phase. Amidst this complexity, companies can come up with clear signals that signify the transition to a new phase. These signals don’t necessarily have to encapsulate the entire landscape of business in the post ‘sustainability-as-usual’ era, but they must carry substantial weight and be bold enough to capture attention and spark discussions. In essence, they should make a resounding statement.

Examples? Here we go:
— Apple moves away from planned obsolescence and adopts modular design for its products.
— H&M eliminates advertising online to reduce overconsumption
— Starbucks discontinues serving coffee in single-use cups.
— Amazon refunds the Prime membership cost to customers who return fewer than three products throughout the year.
— Nike offers free shoe repair services in all of its stores.

2. The ‘Taylor Swift’ factor: Make people excited

Let’s face it — most people are not excited about sustainability. They might care about it in the best-case scenario but are unlikely to get excited about its potential to change our lives for the better. Certainly, no one is as excited about sustainability as they are about Taylor Swift, their beloved soccer or basketball team, or even AI. It’s not too surprising that sustainability-as-usual isn’t exciting, given that it’s limited by design in scope, impact, and vision. How many people are actually thrilled with a new recyclable ketchup bottle cap, compostable shoes, or even net-zero targets? Not many and certainly not enough.

This isn’t just a question of how to wow us but of creating a deeper connection. As Dr. Tasha Seiter explained in her piece on Swifties: “Swift fans connect through the same feelings of being understood and validated. And there is something very human about uniting around a shared experience and belief system. Think of mealtime, think of church. It feels good to be a part of something bigger than ourselves — a sense of common humanity and of community.”

This is exactly what we need from companies: creating enthusiasm that fosters a sense of belonging and connection around sustainability. In many ways, it’s an endeavor to reimagine and market a concept that, to many, seems as uninspiring as daily chores, yet it’s far more profound. It’s about forging a new kind of sustainability, where substance and excitement converge to establish a movement or even a cult around sustainability, and companies know a thing or two about building cult-like followings around brands. While matching the enthusiasm of Swifties might seem ambitious for sustainability, it’s precisely the aspiration needed — transforming sustainability into what Taylor Swift represents for her fans, “a symbol of what they could become — a better, larger, and immensely popular version of themselves.”

3. Becoming a hacker: Challenge the system

While the first two suggested courses of action are more consumer-centered, it is worth considering the necessity of adopting a broader, more holistic approach to changing the zeitgeist on sustainability. In this context, it’s crucial to recognize that systems, in general, resist change and thus it is reasonable to expect similar resistance in efforts to change the sustainability zeitgeist. To support these efforts, we need companies (well, the people leading them) to start making small cracks within the economic system to open it up for new opportunities. In other words, we need companies and their leaders to adopt what RSA describes as a hacker mentality: “Hacking the system means finding the counterpoints to the barriers to change and creating ways to circumvent them.”

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Paul Polman did it in Unilever when he scrapped the quarterly reports and guidance when he became CEO. Another example is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia who transferred (together with his family) the ownership of Patagonia to a trust and a non-profit to preserve the company’s independence and his legacy. In 2022, Christoph Schweizer called climate activists to join the company — if that invitation was followed suit, then it could also be considered a form of hacking.

While hacking the system could be challenging and certainly risky for leaders, it’s crucial in terms of challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions of a shareholder capitalism ‘field’ where the seeds of sustainability-as-usual have been growing. Creating more and more cracks in this system is key for a new zeitgeist to emerge, offering a new and better prescription for the role business can and should play in society. Let’s not forget that in many cases, hacking the building blocks of the current system is good business, as seen in the examples of Paul Polman in Unilever or Yvon Chouinard in Patagonia.

Finally, you might ask WHY? Why would companies challenge the current zeitgeist if they feel quite comfortable within it? There isn’t a single answer, but it is clear that many of them will require a nudge to do so. For some, it’s a gentle push, while for others, perhaps not so gentle. Ultimately, it’s our collective responsibility as individuals, employees, stakeholders, consumers, disruptors, creatives, and activists — to convey to companies that this is what we expect them to do. In essence, we also have a role to play in 2024: urging companies to transform the sustainability zeitgeist, driving systemic changes that, in turn, will help end sustainability-as-usual once and for all.

Happy New Year!

Raz Godelnik is an Associate Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2021). You are welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.



Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach