Sustainability is all about systems-thinking—here’s why

Why systems-thinking?

“Sustainability is all about systems and making sure we’re thinking about the entire picture so we can address a problem from all angles.”
– Nabil Nasr, Director, Golisano Institute for Sustainability, RIT

A “one size fits all” approach to large-scale, global problems relies on what’s sometimes called linear or reductionist thinking. But many experts question whether it’s the right approach when it comes to meeting complex challenges like climate change.

There is increasing consensus among scientists, policymakers, and economists—three groups with very different perspectives—that there is no single “silver bullet” for slowing or adapting to climate change. Rather than solving the problem by relying on a single “techno-fix,” lifestyle change, or broad policy package, they call for an all-hands-on-deck strategy that is multi-pronged and dynamic.

U.S. Representative Joseph Morelle, while talking to a gathering of CEOs at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), touched on several trends—including climate change—that are reshaping life in the United States and elsewhere: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of U.S. industrial competiveness. The congressman didn’t offer any one-size-fits-all solutions during his address. Instead, he pointed to the underlying skills and approach needed to meaningful meet these vexing challenges: systems-thinking.

What is systems-thinking?

At its most simple, systems-thinking means noticing how individual things fit together as part of a larger, moving whole. Such a lens puts stress on the wider patterns, structures, and cycles that are hidden when a single actor or object (which might be a species, a product, an idea, an activity, a type of material, etc.) is evaluated in isolation.

With systems in mind, researchers, policymakers, business planners, and many others are able to better understand how and why the objects or events they observe happen. Most importantly, they are able to connect them to observations that occur elsewhere in a system, even if far removed by time, distance, or context.

How does systems-thinking work?

Systems-thinking, taken on its own, can feel very abstract. The best way to visualize and understand how it works is to see it in action—below are some examples.

Life cycle assessment (LCA)

“A systems approach comprehends sustainability issues at multiple levels, including economics, environment, society, policy, consumers, and education. When I say a ‘systems perspective,’ what I think a lot about is a life-cycle perspective; so not just looking at any given product wherever we might be using it, but rather considering it over its entire life.”
- Callie Babbitt, Professor of Sustainability, Golisano Institute for Sustainability, RIT

Ever wonder what the full environmental impact is of that protein bar you ate this morning? How much energy was used to grow and process the ingredients used to make it? How much carbon was emitted to get it from the farm to the factory and then to the grocery store where you bought it? What happens to the plastic wrapper after you toss it in the trash?

Answering questions like these in an objective, scientific way is without doubt a pretty big ask. It means quantifying the part a single product plays in the intricate interplay of energy, material, and logistical systems that make up today’s global supply chain. One way industrial engineers, academic researchers, and other sustainability experts attempt to do this is through LCA.

LCA is a tool for measuring the environmental impacts of a product or industrial activity at a comprehensive scale. An LCA study can be wide-ranging or very narrow in scope, depending on what the researchers want to learn. But, whatever its breadth and depth, the assessment is one of the most concrete examples of what sustainability systems-thinking looks like in practice.


Circular economy

The circular economy is where systems-thinking becomes systems-doing. In other words, the very idea of a circular economy—where materials and resources are kept in circulation for as long as possible without creating waste—is based on a holistic viewpoint that seeks out the ways in which industrial, economic, social, and natural systems interact. A burgeoning number of companies, government agencies, and research organizations around the world are working to build a circular economy through research and development, policymaking, and innovation.


Food waste and food systems

Wasted food is a systems-level problem: When food goes to waste, everything that goes into growing or producing that food is wasted, too. Between 30 and 50 percent of all food produced never gets eaten. That waste might be excess food that gets thrown out, products that aren’t bought by their sell-by date at grocery stores, or food scraps from restaurants.

Food waste represents over $165 billion of value lost globally every year. It is also a missed opportunity for feeding people who do not have access to adequate nutrition—90 percent of Americans throw away food before it has gone bad. Wasted organic matter like food is a major driver of climate change. When left to rot in a landfill, food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas. Altogether, wasted food is responsible for 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, a total exceeding even that of the airline industry.

Food relies not only on the global supply chain, but also the planet’s vast network of natural ecosystems. A systems view of food is about linking how seemingly unconnected activities—like farming and product sell-by dates—are interrelated.


How to become a systems-thinker

An education in engineering, ecology, architecture, or public policy will introduce students to the basics of systems-thinking, but a graduate degree in sustainability offers an opportunity to go much further. Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary, creating an environment where students learn how to apply systems-thinking across a broad range of professional and scientific contexts.

Many universities offer graduate education programs at the master’s and doctoral levels. At GIS, we offer a master of science degree in sustainable systems and a doctorate in sustainability.



Circular Economy Sustainability Insights


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About the authors

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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