When “solution-aware” is the problem

On the importance of knowing what we’re trying to change

B. Lorraine Smith


It’s hard to solve a problem when we don’t know what the problem is. It’s even worse when we think we know and we’re wrong. (Chalk sketch by me).

Marketing folks talk about five stages of awareness in order to improve sales: problem-unaware, problem-aware, solution-aware, product-aware, and most aware.* This framing helps prioritize marketing efforts. But what happens if the seller doesn’t understand the problem they propose to solve?

When it comes to sustainable business solutions, I consider myself at the problem-aware stage.** The problem I am aware of is that the sustainability industry is not aware of the real problem, so the solutions they sell don’t work.

This is *not* marketing guidance. And I don’t have a solution to sell you.

Rather I am sharing something I have been learning through experience, in my efforts to foster an economy that serves life.

We’re still making things worse, and it’s not for lack of trying

The late Donella Meadows, widely recognized as a leading systems thinker, shared in her infamous Leverage Points article:

“Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that there’s already a lot of attention to that point. Everyone is trying very hard to push it IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!”

It’s a bit like solving for traffic congestion by adding more lanes for cars. The result? More traffic, of course. (Any new car lanes being built in a city near you? How’s it working out?)

Sustainability folks often believe we understand a given problem. Climate change. Ecological degradation. Social inequality. Stuff like that.

But on closer examination most sustainability solutions, even those touted by leaders and award-winners, reveal serious problem-unawareness.



B. Lorraine Smith

Former sustainability consultant replacing ESG with reality-based insights about corporate purpose and impact. https://www.blorrainesmith.com/