Sustainability has evolved significantly since it first began to appear in the 1960s. It began with regulatory compliance; public concern about pollution led to the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, followed by Nixon's order to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

This first wave of regulatory compliance evolved into what Andrew Hoffman, director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, calls "Strategic Environmentalism." A wave of enthusiasm among companies and consumers rose in the late '80s, but began to wane in the '90s before momentum gathered behind a new term, "Sustainability," in the new millennium. Corporations have begun to take some responsibility for leading efforts to bring about social and environmental good. The business case for sustainability has been made.

In Dr. Hoffman's analysis (together with John Ehrenfeld), crisis in the Anthropocene era (a name for the current geological period, marked by human impact on the planet) is quickly leading us into a fourth wave: Systems Thinking. This new phase in the evolution of sustainability includes group efforts to approach crises such as poverty, famine, deforestation, and the mass extinction of hundreds of animal and plant species, by framing problems and solutions in terms of systems. Responses will increasingly rely on cooperation and coordination, and as we move forward we will see disruptive organizational innovation, along with the revolutions in technology needed to effect dramatic change.

Within a company, it is impossible to implement an environmental strategy by relegating the task to one department working in a silo. An environmental strategy affects new product development, corporate reputation, employee retention and culture, consumer demand, cost of capital, insurance risk management, disaster preparedness and resilience, resource availability, operational efficiency, supply chain logistics, strategic direction and of course regulatory compliance. An environmental strategy isolated to only a few of these areas is ineffective.

Outside a company as well, complex problems need to be dealt with by all the key stakeholders working together. A recent workshop in El Paso, Texas, for example, brought together US and Mexican tire manufacturers, tire retailers, scrap tire recyclers, and local, state and federal authorities to improve levels of scrap tire recycling in US-Mexico border areas.

Dr. Hoffman notes that moving into the fourth wave of Systems Thinking is a cultural revolution as profound as the industrial revolution. Already, the opportunity for corporate sustainability strategies, reporting and metrics is having a snowball effect: companies are forcing their suppliers to comply with sustainability codes, and these suppliers, in turn, are pulling their own supply chains into the movement. We are also seeing a democratization of corporate structures, with more co-ops and new end-user driven models such as those being introduced by Airbnb and Uber.

Let the fourth wave begin!