Why would someone taking and passing “Sustainable Business” class at the University of Oregon’s Lillis School of Business have the audacity to question the use of the sacred word, “sustainable?”

Didn’t the students of this MBA class undertake a sustained effort for 10 weeks, producing capstone projects for sustainable businesses and non-profits, in order to secure a sustainable grade leading to a sustainable graduation and a sustainable career?

We did that and more. And yet it dawned on me that the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” are losing their identity and distinction. They are in danger of becoming cliché, if that has not already occurred.  If you don’t believe me just check out the 222 million Google results for these words.

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As Almost DailyBrett has commented these words have become virtually mandatory for marketers as evidenced by FedEx taking one overused buzzword, “sustainable” and combining it with another overused buzzword, “solutions” to produce (drum roll please): “Sustainable Solutions.” I am getting ill.

In an effort to discover new frontiers beyond “sustainability,” I drove my little green Miata through blowing snow last week to the 2012 Oregon Governor’s Conference on Tourism, sponsored by Travel Oregon, in Portland.

Did I hear the words, “sustainable” and “sustainability” dozens of time at the tourism conference? You bet ya…but I also heard innovative musings that point to a bright, new world beyond sustainability. Is that even possible and are these new thoughts, sustainable?

In particular, I heard the words of James Curleigh, president and chief executive officer of KEEN Footwear, based in the ultra cool Pearl District in the Northwest quadrant of Portland. His message was consistent with the notion of sustainability, but it goes much further…even as the privately held company reportedly brought in $240 million in revenues last year.

Curleigh secured the audience’s attention by singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” as he was being introduced. Curleigh last year led a clapping audience in Tokyo in the Beatles’ “Revolution” as a way of gaining attention. Soloing at the beginning of a presentation takes major cojones and at least a half-way decent singing voice.

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Curleigh is much more than a dynamic, passionate extemporaneous speaker with a natural gift for communicating and literally spellbinding an audience. He is a believer. He embraces the “hybrid life” concept of KEEN Footwear, sandals with roots in ancient times with modern big-toe bumper plates. He is a child of the 60s with a business plan for the 21st Century.

He invokes the “positive collision” as he calls it of “create, play, care” to introduce “hybrid life.” Curleigh, who is also KEEN’s “chief product tester” and “chief recess officer,” follows the mantra of “Don’t take yourself too seriously, but take what you do real seriously.” As evidence of this motto, the light-hearted KEEN donated its 2004 marketing budget to the victims of that year’s Asian tsunami.

Speaking before several hundred Oregon tourism and hospitality business owners, he asked whether Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would be proud of the state that was the destination of their infamous 1804-1806 trek across America’s fruited plain. The consensus was the two explorers would be pleased with the place bordering the Pacific Ocean, located south of the Columbia River and north of the California line that conjures up images of trees, windswept beaches, majestic peaks and high deserts.

Curleigh saluted Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood as an example of “collaborative stewardship.” Is that another way of saying “sustainable” or “sustainability?”

General George S. Patton is famous for his quote, “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone is not thinking.” Curleigh offers a glimmer and maybe more of at least one person thinking outside of the “sustainable” and “sustainability” box.

Not sure the general would have condoned Curleigh’s beard, t-shirt and casual pants, but his way of looking at the world and seeing new ways to market corporate social responsibility would have found favor with the general looking for those with new ways of thinking.

Editor’s Note: I have no engagement with KEEN. I have never met James Curleigh (even though I would like to have that opportunity). And I wear Sketchers.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KEEN,_Inc.

http://www.keenfootwear.com/us/en/explorekeen.aspx

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1pPMqG2NWo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTNuwPplaxI&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WqGXO5yzXM&feature=related

https://almostdailybrett.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/thirty-four-miles-from-point-a-to-point-b-and-memphis-tennessee-in-between/

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