In my previous post about aligning a sustainability and corporate strategies I used an example of how an organization might be getting pressure from external stakeholders such as consumers to address an issue (such as toxic components in toys) while the internal stakeholders are focused on other sustainability initiatives such as changing light bulbs.

This challenge of competing priorities is tough, but it can actually get worse!

How many of us have seen our offices upgrade from the fat, desk-hogging CRT monitors to the sleek, energy-efficient LCD displays? And our companies get brownie points for upgrading to more energy efficient IT assets, but what happened to those old CRTs? Well, as a recent NY Times article uncovers, they are sitting in massive stockpiles of e-waste, quickly becoming a monumental environmental disaster!

There are also systemic challenges to this problem. Let’s take another example, this time from a consumer product perspective. Retailer XYZ is trying to be a good corporate citizen by implementing a consumer product take-back program. Lots of sustainability professionals (myself included) have advocated these programs because they reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills, and valuable resources can be extracted from reclaimed products. These types of take-back programs can range from simple product returns for unwanted purchases (that weird gizmo your Aunt Edie got you for Christmas – yeah, you know what I mean!) to e-waste and Household Hazardous Waste collection events.

However, when retailers implement these programs, they find themselves in a quasi-waste management business, collecting items for recycling or refurbishment, and shipping them back to the vendor. And, as recently happened with several big box retailers, if these products have any sort of toxic component (and you would be SHOCKED at the number of household products that do!) this makes them subject to hazardous waste laws and opens them up to being sued by federal or state environmental protection agencies. Since 2006, several of these retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, CVS, and The Home Depot, have been subject to almost $80 million in penalties due to improper handling of hazardous materials in their “reverse logistics” operations.

This is no longer just a strategic alignment problem, it is a systems thinking problem, where making changes in one place in a larger system (like the office or your house) has ripple effects and unintended consequences in other parts of the system. No single company can solve this type of problem on its own. It requires the coordinated thinking of product designers, manufacturers, advertisers, retailers, consumers, regulators and waste experts, just to name a few.

So try an experiment, the next time you find yourself thinking about a sustainability program that you like or want to implement – ask yourself, what is the bigger system at play here, and is this program going to be a net gain for the environment or society all the way through the broader system?