Skip to main content

The Sustainable MBA

Fundamentals of Sustainable Business in the 21st Century

Have the arguments about sustainability changed much in the last 30 years? And by arguing, do we really accomplish any more than defining the opposing positions? At the heart of sustainable business I find fundamental principles that are inspiring more and more leaders to adopt sustainability as "just good business."

In business, the key to profit -- sustainable or otherwise -- lies in finding out what people really care about, and in helping them attend to what they care about in meaningful and sustainable ways. This does not come from winning an argument -- it's a process of innovation and heartfelt concern that provides dramatic opportunity for a new generation of leaders committed to producing profit, not by killing the competition, but by caring for the customers and for each other.

Thus, many sustainability advocates are moving past the old arguments into a phase of implementation, just like many developing economies have leap-frogged the old, hard-wired communications and energy technologies to embrace cell phones and diverse, locally renewable energy sources.

Preparing new business leaders to adapt to this emphasis on sustainability will meet the growing demand for managers, entrepreneurs, leaders and professionals who are skilled at planning for the long term. As most business schools scramble to integrate sustainability throughout their MBA curricula, at Presidio School of Management we have found that three basic principles continue to underlie all the myriad ways in which the term "sustainability" is used in today's business world, to enhance core business value and reinforce competitive advantage:
  1. Radical Resource Efficiency: Radically increase the productivity with which all resources are used, including energy, water, materials and people. The growing number of profitable solutions to environmental challenges can buy the time needed to implement measures that will go beyond mere compliance to attain true sustainability.
  2. Design for Sustainability: Such innovative design processes as biomimicry, cradle to cradle and other forms of "green" design enable businesses to harness nature's wisdom to drive innovation. These approaches allow us to create systems that eliminate waste and toxics while delivering superior products and services.
  3. Manage for Prosperity and Sustainability: Employ the emerging practice of Sustainable Management to restore, enhance and sustain the natural and human capital needed for continuing financial prosperity.*
As the Program Coordinator for the International Cooperation Council many years ago, I coordinated a world festival for organizations dedicated to bringing forth a culture of unity and diversity. Among the 150 organizations represented, there was not a single for-profit corporation. As the Deputy to the Director for the Los Angeles-based TreePeople, we struggled to obtain corporate sponsorships for tree planting. Although the arguments haven't changed much, a visit to any of today's "green" festivals or conventions reveals a very different constituency in the 21st Century.

As Wal-Mart and other large corporations are finding, becoming sustainable includes taking care of customers, employees and the surrounding communities within which business is conducted. It has to be more than greenwashing -- you have to take care of people and the environment in order to produce sustainable profit. Even the U.S. Army found, when moving their base at Ft. Carson towards sustainability, that becoming sustainable requires supporting surrounding communities and supply chains in becoming more sustainable as well.

Sustainability also offers today's business leaders an opportunity to develop meaningful work -- work that people really care about, in ways that integrate radical resource efficiency, the redesign of every product and process with nature in mind, and in ways that restore financial, cultural, and natural heritage through profitable business ventures.

After 30 years in business, managing conventions, wholesale and retail travel, hotels, resort condominiums, time-shares, shopping centers and insurance organizations, and now as a professor of sustainable management, I am heartened and inspired by the emerging trends. Forty years ago, I served as the president of my high school Interact Club -- a sort of junior Rotary Club for high school students. Through sustainability, we have an opportunity to realize Rotary International's Four Way Test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Is it beneficial to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

Sustainability continues to emerge as the world-leading, defining concept for how businesses meet the challenges of the 21st Century. This goes well beyond mere compliance or living within one's budget, to embrace much more fundamental, more humane values, visions and affirmations. After all, it's just good business.



Paul Sheldon teaches Principles of Sustainable Management and Effective Management, Communication and Action at Presidio School of Management. He is an Underwriting Consultant for California's State Workers' Compensation Insurance Fund, and a Senior Consultant with Natural Capitalism Solutions.

More on this topic

More by This Author