An idea for 2013: Crowdsourcing "sustainability"

I have an idea for 2013. Let's collaborate to come up with a new definition for "corporate sustainability."

Would that I had a dollar for every panel discussion in which the moderator says something like "everyone has their own definition of 'sustainability' and no two agree." Never mind that the subject and verb don't agree either (I reluctantly accept this one, given its obvious intent to avoid gender bias). But I actually don't believe that all of the definitions are different. They're more like different perspectives on the same bigger idea — more like the blind men and the elephant parable.

Thinking about it again today as we plan to update our employee computer-based training on sustainability, I realize that I fell into a trap when I tried to come up with a unique definition for EMC. Many of my peers have done it, some more successfully than others. The desire to do so is understandable — after all, we want something that captures our company's personality and values and that speaks to our colleagues in a familiar voice.

But it's a trap because we're clearly better off if we have a broader community working toward the same broader objective. Our goals should clearly be unique, and our strategies. But with a common understanding of what we're trying to achieve with "corporate sustainability," our employees will not only get reinforcement from external sources, they'll come in from schools or other companies better prepared to understand what our companies are trying to do and why.

Perhaps discussions between companies will be more fruitful, and a common understanding within a company of what is or is not "in scope" will reduce some internal friction. And maybe it would even be easier to standardize customer questionnaires and rating systems. (Okay, you can't blame me for being an optimist this time of year!)

Not that there aren't already definitions out there, and maybe we should simply settle on one. But for me, they're not quite hitting the mark just as they are. Here are some I've used and my thoughts about them.

From the Brundtland Commission's report Our Common Future, defining sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Next page: A tour of others' definitions