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What is systems thinking in sustainability?

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A powerful corporate tool that allows us to better navigate and understand the complex and often fragile relationship between socio-political norms and natural ecosystems that exist in the business world, systems thinking is essential in helping us see and understand the consequences business systems and subsequent decisions can have on our world[1].

With climate change and sustainability now firmly on the global agenda, and pressure on businesses to improve corporate responsibility relating to sustainability through strategically guided brand innovation, now is a good time for businesses to take advantage of systems thinking.

However, what exactly is systems thinking, how does it relate to sustainability, and what does  the systems thinking approach to sustainability look like? Read on to find out more.

Systems thinking and sustainability

In its most basic form, system thinking is an analytic approach that breaks down the systems an organisation uses into their constituent parts in order to better understand how they work with, interrelate to and impact the things around them[2]. Challenges that are perfect for a systems thinking approach are ones that are[3]:

  • Long-term rather than one-time events.
  • Familiar and with a trackable history.
  • Still unsolved despite previous attempts.

With this in mind, a business’ policy position on sustainability represents the ideal challenge that can be tackled through systems thinking. Indeed, according to John Sterman, professor

of management at MIT and director of the MIT Systems Dynamics Group, the development of systems thinking is ‘crucial for the survival of humanity’[4].

This is because, as touched upon above, when applied to the areas of sustainability, systems thinking enables businesses and other organisations to better view and understand the impacts of their business decisions and avoid unintended consequences these decisions may have on the environment around us. This process then allows businesses to develop innovative strategies, develop new action plans, and ultimately implement better approaches for systematic internal change that makes the organisation more sustainable and environmentally-friendly[5]. From small incremental changes to far-reaching company policy amendments, when systems thinking is properly carried out and reform is implemented with a specific focus on sustainability, practical and truly meaningful ways to change a business’ impact on the planet as a whole can be found[6].

What is a systems thinking approach to sustainability?

As discussed above, when looking to make an organisation more sustainable, a business that adopts a process of systems thinking will investigate the relationships, impacts and interactions caused by one decision or action when looking to solve a problem. This is in order to create a large picture of all underlying issues in one go rather than simply reacting to each single problem that arises. This helps businesses to look for patterns over time and identify root causes to problems before they decide on the most appropriate methods of solving the issue.

This approach to systems thinking is known as the ‘the iceberg’ approach. This is because, in theory at least, only 10 percent of an iceberg is visible above water when it is floating in the ocean. The other 90 per cent remains unseen under the water’s surface, and it is this section of the iceberg that is impacted by the sea’s current, which dictates its behaviour. Large problems that need solving, such as sustainability issues within your business, can be seen to work in the same way[7].

This four-step approach to evaluating a problem can help you to identify the root causes that trigger problematic events. In turn, this allows you to develop and implement suitable solutions. The four steps are[8]:

Event/problem in question

This is the ‘visible’ part of the iceberg. For this step, observe what the problem is on the surface. For example, a retailer may calculate the level of single-use plastics used as part of their brand’s packaging, with the aim of reducing their business’ carbon footprint.

Pattern and trends

Once the problem has been identified, it’s time to look for patterns and trends. Has this happened before? Is the problem getting worse? Do similar organisations also face this issue? With our packaging example, this step could include working out if the business’ use of single-use plastics is increasing year on year.

Systems and structures

Next, identify the actual cause of the problem. This could be items, people, procedures or a combination of the three that have contributed to the issue becoming problematic. Again, if we look at our packaging example, this could be identifying old, outdated designs and manufacturing processes resulting in the use of single-use plastic packaging. 

Metal models

This final step relates to identifying and challenging the often entrenched beliefs and assumptions held that could be shaping, triggering and even exacerbating the causes of the problem. If we look at our packaging example one more time, this could include a company-wide held belief that traditional plastic packaging represents the cheapest and  most effective method of protecting products during transport and marketing them in store. This step may also highlight that alternative solutions – such as eco-friendly packaging materials and processes, in this example – have never been properly explored.

In theory, only once all four steps of this systems thinking approach have been taken can potential suitable solutions can be discussed, debated and eventually implemented effectively[9].

Fortunately, there is plenty of help available for brands looking to implement real change to improve sustainability following an internal process of systems thinking. Brand specialists, such as 1HQ, can help businesses to reach their sustainability goals and become catalysts for industry change. In this regard, systems thinking can lead to refreshed branding and design strategies, as well as improved communication and product development which can enable companies to transform and increase their engagement with sustainable purposes and services.


[1] https://futurice.com/blog/systems-thinking-and-sustainability

[2] https://searchcio.techtarget.com/definition/systems-thinking

[3] https://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-what-why-when-where-and-how/

[4] https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/systems-thinking-can-help-build-sustainable-world-beginning-conversation/

[5] https://futurice.com/blog/systems-thinking-and-sustainability

[6] https://www.forumforthefuture.org/blog/systems-thinking-unlocking-the-sustainable-development-goals

[7] https://ecochallenge.org/iceberg-model/

[8] https://bigthinking.io/the-iceberg-model-for-problem-solving/

[9] https://bigthinking.io/the-iceberg-model-for-problem-solving/

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