What is sustainability, anyway?

Two Steps Forward

What is sustainability, anyway?

It was a simple and reasonable request from the marketing director of a large company: “Do you have a 1-2 page article you can share on ‘What Sustainability Is’? I am looking to do an internal training session with sales reps, and would love to share something as a pre-read to get them excited.”

At GreenBiz, we get a lot of requests for information and resources — from readers, colleagues, sponsors, partners, and everyone else. We can’t answer them all, but we try to be helpful, especially when it’s from a valued partner, as this one was. Most such requests are fairly focused — a referral to an organization or service provider, for example, or to a company “best practice” of a specific nature. Usually, we can put our fingers on the information in fairly short order.

But this one had us stumped.

It shouldn’t have. I’ve been working in the area of business and sustainability (though it wasn’t always called that) for just shy of 25 years. GreenBiz, as an organization and website, is 14 years old. Surely we’d have something as basic as a brief document defining sustainability for an audience not already immersed in the topic.

We didn’t. Moreover, in searching for something — anything — that might fit the bill, I found nothing that satisfied my needs.

This is a problem — for my organization, obviously, but for all of us. How are we supposed to scale this idea of “sustainable business” when there’s a dearth of resources geared to the uninitiated?

And let’s not forget one of the key parameters of the above assignment: a simple pre-read for a group of sales reps “to get them excited.”

Sure, there’s the Brundtland Report definition of “sustainable development,” along with its many variants. That’s always a good place to start. But if you’re, say, a salesperson at a multinational company looking to get pumped about the potential of sustainability to bolster your company, your customers, and your sales commissions — well, Brundtland doesn’t offer much.

So, let’s see what is out there. I looked around specifically for definitions of “sustainable business.”

We’ll begin with everyone’s favorite go-to resource, Wikipedia:

Sustainable business, or green business, is an enterprise to be that has minimal negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy—a business that strives to meet the triple bottom line. Often, sustainable businesses have progressive environmental and human rights policies. In general, business is described as green if it matches the following four criteria:

  1. It incorporates principles of sustainability into each of its business decisions.
  2. It supplies environmentally friendly products or services that replaces demand for nongreen products and/or services.
  3. It is greener than traditional competition.
  4. It has made an enduring commitment to environmental principles in its business operations.

(Note: Most of the excerpts I’m providing here are just that: excerpts of longer texts. Feel free to click through to read the entire treatise.)

There’s this, from the Financial Times:

Business sustainability is often defined as managing the triple bottom line — a process by which companies manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities. These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet.

However, this approach relies on an accounting based perspective and does not fully capture the time element that is inherent within business sustainability. A more robust definition is that business sustainability represents resiliency over time – businesses that can survive shocks because they are intimately connected to healthy economic, social and environmental systems. These businesses create economic value and contribute to healthy ecosystems and strong communities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers this:

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have,  the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment.

The best of the lot came from the organization called, appropriately, SustainAbility, a 25-year-old U.K.- and U.S.-based think tank and consultancy. It has a thoughtful articulation of the topic. (The same verbiage appears on several other sites; not sure where it originated.) It begins:

While sustainability is about the future of our society, for today's industries and businesses, it is also about commercial success. The mandate to transform businesses to respect environmental limits while fulfilling social wants and needs has become an unparalleled platform for innovation on strategy, design, manufacturing and brand, offering massive opportunities to compete and to adapt to a rapidly evolving world.

A few others I stumbled upon:

I could go on. The Web is full of pages like these. We could collectively critique each of these and find both good and not-so-good elements in all of them. (Principally, sustainability is not just about the environment, as many of these suggest.) Did any of these excerpts make sustainable business clear, let alone exciting? I’d say not.

I also checked the websites of some of the venerable organizations in the field: the World Business Council on Sustainable DevelopmentCeres, the Global Environmental Management InitiativeBSRGreen America. Nothing that would have fit this assignment.

Media companies (including GreenBiz) aren't doing any better. None that I checked — both mainstream (Guardian Sustainable BusinessReuters SustainabilityEconomist) and niche (EnvironmentalLeaderTriplePunditSustainableBusiness) offered anything that met my needs.

(Message to the above organizations: If I missed something, please let me know. Part of the exercise was to see if your sites had anything findable in just a few minutes — the attention span of most … hey, look, a squirrel!)

All of them — er, us — seem to begin with the premise that readers already “get it.” We don’t seem to be reaching out to the uninitiated — that is, pretty much everyone. How do we all expect to grow our respective and collective audiences?

How would you have fulfilled the above request? How does your company simply and effectively communicate what sustainability is — maybe even in a way that “gets them excited”? I’d love to hear — and share — your best efforts.

Meanwhile, we’ll start working on ours.