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Why a Solutions-Focused Mindset Is Essential for Creating a Sustainable Future

Rather than dwelling on problems, a solutions-centered focus — within individuals, organizations, governments, etc — naturally leads to breaking negative feedback loops, feelings of hopelessness, and cycles of redundant and unproductive work.

There is no doubt about it: The human race faces a multitude of challenges right now. Regardless of where in the world people live or the industry in which they work, every person wakes up in a world facing a global pandemic, fighting the climate emergency, dealing with deep roots of racism and oppression, and challenging a divisive political climate. At times, the problems can seem insurmountable. Finding a clear path forward to a healthier, safer, more equitable, and more sustainable way of living and working can feel downright overwhelming.

When faced with such massive problems, we — as individuals, companies, communities, governing bodies and the human race — can simply admit defeat and walk away. Or, we can continue the work needed to chip away at the world’s challenges. The good news is, the path to a more sustainable future is already illuminated if people are willing to lean into action with a solutions-focused mindset.

“A solutions-focused mindset is crucial for sustainable development,” said Eliza Erskine, founder of Green Buoy Consulting, which provides sustainability-focused services. “As the science becomes clearer on the climate and other indicators show the need for sustainability, we need to move from discussion and engagement into a solution.”

Negativity and the problem with problems

It is human nature to focus on problems. Hashing and rehashing problems often surfaces more problems, encouraging people to spend more mental energy focused on negative aspects of a situation rather than using that mental energy to move on to solution-seeking and problem-solving.

A study published in April in Conservation Letters: A Journal of the Society of Conservation Biology found that the majority of conservation studies (70 percent) don’t propose responses to observed changes. Further, there doesn’t appear to be an ongoing evolution of finding solutions to these problems: As co-author David R. Williams said in an interview with Mongabay about the research, “We don’t seem to be developing this deeper understanding of threats or how to respond to them.”

But just as staying in a cycle of problems surfaces more problems, focusing on solutions uncovers more solutions. The research paper highlights a few successful conservation efforts that follow a progressive framework to demonstrate the benefits of a more holistic and solutions-focused research approach. However, it also notes the underlying and pervasive problem with the current strategy for reporting on conservation efforts: “This lack of research on the sorts of questions that might most help conservation science deliver its stated mission strongly suggests we will struggle to translate the huge increase in research activity into real‐world benefits.”

Adopting a solutions-focused mindset — whether within individuals, organizations, governments, etc — naturally leads to breaking negative feedback loops, feeling of impossibility, and cycles of redundant and unproductive work. The truth is, there are countless creative and innovative solutions addressing sustainability issues being developed and refined every day by people, organizations and social impact initiatives. Seeking out and learning about these solutions can help light the fire needed to move from negativity and inaction to optimism and meaningful action.

From know-it-all to learn-it-all

The road to a world operating sustainably by default is paved with experimentation, adaptation, flexibility and additional unexpected challenges.

“It's important to have a solution-centered focus whenever you are tackling something unknown,” said Brenden Fitzgerald, CEO of Planet Protein — a vegan protein powder company committed to sustainability and carbon neutrality. “Even in 2020, there are not many businesses working to pursue a carbon-neutral footprint or just a more eco-friendly one. Being focused on solutions will ensure that sustainability measures continue to move forward, even if the first, second or third idea didn't work out.”

Adopting a solutions-focused mindset means letting go of the belief that we as individuals and society know all the answers. It requires asking hard questions, embracing collaboration and seeking out experts who can help think in new ways. Additionally, it means being truly committed to a sustainable mission.

“I think that, if you don't have the solution as the framework to build upon — and instead, just try to squeeze something sustainable in as an appendage after the product or service is created — it just won't work to produce the large-scale change that the global society needs,” said Lauren DeCarli, founder and chief creative officer of sustainable apparel brand Paneros Clothing.

From helplessness to hopefulness

When people feel helpless, they acquire a sense of disempowerment and believe their actions do not make a difference. When they fall into a problem-focused mindset with the belief that circumstances can’t be changed, people become unresponsive and fatalistic. The inclination, then, is to be a passive observer — rather than an engaged participant interested in and willing to change.

“Part of why a solutions-focus is helpful in pursuing sustainability is because it builds momentum,” Erskine said. This momentum is important because there is no finish line to sustainability — just new opportunities to adapt, problem solve; and seek out even better, more sustainable solutions. “Once you've found one solution, or part of a solution to a problem; it builds on itself and paves the way for others to develop solutions, too. Even if progress is slow — when one solution is created, it leads to additional solutions and usually better ones down the road,” Erskine added.

Embracing more sustainable practices inherently requires rethinking and changing business operations, government policies, and personal actions and behaviors. Helplessness is a learned behavior that can be unlearned, and becoming aware of progress and solutions is part of the unlearning process.

There is no alternative

The sense of purpose and feeling of hopefulness that come with this way of thinking are certainly beneficial. However, those features are byproducts of the true need for a mindset and outlook that is future-facing and centered around solutions: There is no alternative.

“The alternative is waiting on the sidelines for someone else to take charge, while many people are in a position to create solutions,” Erskine said. “They just need to take the first step.”

DeCarli pointed out that being solutions-oriented is essential for action; feigning action and sidestepping solutions often results in brands greenwashing their sustainability efforts and confusing consumers who want to be more ethical in their purchasing decisions.

“This is the cause of some of the major problems with greenwashing, which distracts from the monumental task at stake,” she said. This “does a huge disservice to those who are taking it more seriously and are solutions-focused.”

Accepting the status quo, waiting for others to act, or holding back instead of critically thinking about how to chart a way forward means letting precious time slip by while global challenges keep mounting. Adopting a solutions-oriented focus is the first and most critical step in manifesting a more sustainable future built on intentional change.