An idea for 2013: Crowdsourcing "sustainability"

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."

Certainly the most oft-cited definition, and one that I found very compelling and inspiring when I first read it. Students seem particularly inspired by it. Some have criticized it for focusing only on the "less bad" aspect, rather than "more good" aspect of sustainability. I also find that for some, it is just too vague and conceptual, leaving people feeling overwhelmed by the thought that they should be responsible for "future generations." And some people dismiss it with an assertion that future generations will simply figure out how to meet their own needs, just as we (presumably) have done for generations.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Index states that "Corporate Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments."

I use this definition a lot — it really helps people to understand that sustainability is not contrary to the goal of shareholder value creation, but in fact necessary to it. After all, what shareholder would not want her investments understanding and acting on new risks and opportunities? My problem with this one is more personal — it kind of implies that shareholder value creation is the fundamental reason for corporate sustainability in the first place. This is a bit self-referential in that some of the risks and opportunities are themselves derived from how a company chooses to embrace sustainability — which means it's either a house of cards (no, it isn't) or there are some larger, external forces at work (yes, there are. See my post WWKT).

"Long-term systems thinking"

This is the shortest definition I know (after "people, planet, profit," anyway). It says it all to me, but I don't think it really conveys much. It certainly doesn’t explain that the boundaries of systems must be extended to incorporate society, the planet, and the future well beyond the next earnings call.

"A Sustainable Business creates shared value for its stakeholders in a manner that could continue indefinitely."

We made this one up a few years back (and yes, it was before Michael Porter's "Creating Shared Value" HBR article. Really!). It's useful if you're going to take the time to break down what "shared value" means, who the "stakeholders" are, and why we would want to "continue indefinitely." On its own, doesn't get much response and I've pretty much stopped using it.

We also have a definition for "environmental sustainability" as "conserving and enriching the environment in which we live and work; creating value in the adaptations that are required to thrive into the future; and mitigating the risks from changes in the planet that we cannot influence."

Not bad, though a little 12-steppy. Also, it's not enough to talk only about the environment.

"Making decisions with conscious awareness of environmental and social impacts, both positive and negative."

I use this in discussion a lot, but the truth is that sustainability is more than being conscious of the impacts. That is an important first step, but what really matter are the impacts of the decisions we ultimately make rather than those of the choices we consider. (And when it comes down to it, even minimizing the negative impacts and maximizing the positive won't be enough if we don't achieve an entirely new state that can legitimately be called "sustainable.")

Here are some interesting examples from a few renowned authors:

  • From Bob Willard's The Sustainability Advantage"For a business, it means sustaining nature's resources as well as sustaining the company."
  • In The Triple Bottom Line, Andy Savitz gives the definition of "the art of doing business in an interdependent world," but I also like this phrasing that he uses: "A sustainable company manages its risks and maximizes its opportunities by identifying key nonfinancial stakeholders and engaging them in matters of mutual interest."
  • In The Green to Gold Business Playbook, Dan Esty & PJ Simmons describes "a 'triple bottom line' approach to business through which companies seek to deliver not just profits and solid economic results but also good performance from an environmental and social perspective."
  • Joel Makower puts a businsess spin on the Brundtland definition in Strategies for a Green Economy"the ability to continue one's business operations indefinitely in a way that doesn't create limits for future generations."

What do you think — do we need a shared definition, or should we continue to tailor the talk to the audience? Which definitions work for you? Any others you've heard that you like?