Making Sense of Sustainability

How the aviation industry resisted, diluted, and ultimately subverted a concept that threatens its legitimacy

Making Sense of Sustainability

Essay by Jean-Baptiste Litrico

A few years ago, aviation industry leaders gathered in Geneva at an international Summit on Aviation and the Environment in a glum mood. Wherever they looked, their industry was under siege. The Bishop of London railed that “making selfish choices such as flying on holiday [is] a symptom of sin.” Friends of the Earth demonstrators were blocking runways in Europe, demanding a cut in carbon emissions. Standard Life removed airline stocks from its ethical fund. In question was the environmental sustainability — and very legitimacy — of aviation as an entire industry.

At the Geneva conference, an industry insider told the audience, “I’ve grown inside aviation, the airline business, and I remember flying was charming. But I remember smoking was charming too. And today, smoking is banned. . . I hope that doesn’t happen with aviation.”

The aviation leaders were right to wonder whether their industry had become a pariah. Although mining and oil interests have had a long history of controversy, neither experienced such a radical shift in public image as aviation, which has become a targeted symbol of climate change offender in under a decade.

How the aviation industry subsequently responded to the challenges posed by the sustainability agenda is instructive. It shows how those with the power to create real change make sense of — but sometimes subvert — a disruptive and threatening concept.

Semantic Magnet

Make no mistake, the pressures brought on by the need for sustainability threaten the airline business. Airlines rely on environmentally damaging technologies for which no current substitute exists. But sustainability is also a fuzzy concept. In theory, it is understood as reconciling social, economic, and environmental demands. In practice, it has morphed into a “semantic magnet,” a term that remains vague and subject to multiple interpretations and perspectives. Sometimes, it is useful for disruptive concepts to remain vague: “strategic ambiguity” can offer a big tent in which people from diverse backgrounds can share ideas. But vague concepts can also be smokescreens, invoked by organizations claiming to be moving toward an ideal yet undefined destination.

On that blank canvas, aviation professionals made their own sense of sustainability. In research conducted over several years with Mary Dean Lee, we observed a range of responses that seemed far removed from sustainability’s end goals.

First, industry leaders felt threatened and unjustly targeted by the media and NGOs, and offended on a personal level by being seen as polluting and destroying the planet. And they were convinced that the public held an outdated image of the industry. Aviation had become democratized and part of the fabric of society, they said. It was no longer a luxury service but one catering to the masses.

They also minimized and modified the concept of sustainability. We heard many aviation officials indicate that practices now falling under the label of “sustainability” had been around for years. Or that sustainability required stepping back and taking a long-term holistic view.

In time, the boundaries of sustainability expanded so much as to lose meaning

In time, the boundaries of sustainability expanded so much as to lose meaning. It covered everything from recycling paper to fuel initiative programs, and was a grab-bag category of actions that did not fit in any other organizational theme. As one leader told us, “It’s economic and social so it’s very difficult to find things that you could not include under the heading of sustainability. It’s from health and safety issues on the work floor to gender policies, human resource and recruiting activities, and wider developmental issues, Third World issues.”

Beyond diluting the meaning of sustainability, aviation officials turned the concept on its head. When I asked one industry leader what sustainable development meant for aviation, he replied that it meant meeting the demands of future generations and sustaining the growth of aviation.

As it made its way through the body politic of the aviation industry, sustainability emerged as perfectly resonating and in tune with what we term the industry ethos — faith in technology to solve big challenges and in aviation’s can-do pioneering spirit. Industry officials were now excited and motivated by long-term goals toward what they understood to be sustainable development.

Diffusion of Concepts

Over the next few decades, their confidence in finding a technological magic bullet may be justified. Electric airplanes and alternate fuel sources are being developed. But these are long-term moonshots. More pressing is the importance of identifying measures that would actually reduce net aviation emissions in the short term. The aviation industry has never wanted to contemplate such measures because doing so might mean reducing growth, which is extraordinarily hard to accept.

There are a couple of lessons here. One is how new concepts and models become either accepted, subverted, or die on the vine. Back in the 1990s, for example, a management model known as reengineering was popular. At first, it had a specific meaning: using information technology to reengineer how an organization operates. But as reengineering was instituted by a growing number of firms, it became synonymous with layoffs and was drained of meaning. To a large degree, that appears to be happening with sustainable development. A number of industry insiders told me that they no longer use the term because it is meaningless. They prefer to speak about more concrete issues that need to be addressed.

The other lesson is the recognition that human beings are sense-making creatures — they need to understand what is happening around them. Individual organizations and entire industries are no different. In the vast majority of cases, aviation industry leaders are well-meaning individuals; they have pride in what they do and want to offer the best service to the public. It’s just that, in the process of making sense of a concept such as sustainability, they ended up flying in the wrong direction.

Jean-Baptiste Litrico is associate professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Strategy at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University.