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Less is More Obvious: Why Sustainability Is So Hard To Define

Recently, Tim Mohin had the opportunity to speak to a diverse group of industry professionals on "Sustainability 101." No one raised a hand when he asked whether anyone could define sustainability, and its soon became clear that a vague definition that can mean all things to all people just wouldn't cut it.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a diverse group of industry professionals on "Sustainability 101." Starting the meeting with a show of hands, I asked, "Who can define sustainability?"

No reaction. Hmmm …

Realizing that most of the time, I tend to preach to the converted, I readied myself for some tough sledding. (My follow up question got only slightly more response. It was "Who thinks sustainability is a political correctness campaign cooked up in California?")

After the event, it was illuminating to talk with some of the participants to understand why this concept is initially difficult but ultimately very simple. We have developed a "word soup" around sustainability. It is more of stew than a soup in that every ingredient in the kitchen can be added.

As I started my talk, it was clear that a vague definition that can mean all things to all people wouldn't cut it. The official definition from 25 years ago "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation's to meet their own needs" sounds terrific but is not easily translated into an operational strategy.

The halfway point from this (Bruntland Commission) definition to an operational strategy is the term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Trying to define CSR with a skeptical audience of neophytes was more chunky stew.

I droned: The basic elements are:

A. CSR is voluntary but your actions (or lack thereof) will be judged and your reputation is at stake;
B. To be effective CSR must be part of your business strategy;
C. Decreasing your impact throughout the value chain, while necessary, is not sufficient;
D. Real CSR in achieved when companies apply their core competencies to help solve society's problems;
E. There are three interlocking dimensions of CSR: Social, Environmental and Economic.
More blank stares … Crickets chirping …

OK, it distills to simply this: It is an expectation that you treat people and our planet with respect. That's it.

This was the connection point -- the common language that led us out of the chunky stew and into a meaningful dialogue.

What this experience taught me is that there are some basic truths that are obvious to everyone but the practitioners of sustainability. Rather than struggling with definitions and standards, people intrinsically understand that we all have to account for our impact and, if possible, lend a hand to make things better. This change did not happen because everyone woke up one day with a desire to save the planet. The trend toward sustainability stems from a common realization of scarcity and the instinctive imperative to husband our resources.

Perhaps it is the "Tragedy of the Commons" on a grand scale. Increasingly, the public consciousness is demanding accountability and action not only to protect, but to enhance our common good and our shared resources.

Private sector companies are in the vanguard of this change because historically they have been the most identifiable consumers of shared resources and easily vilified. Going forward, companies may be the most identifiable sources of shared value.

The trade-offs inherent in the sustainability debate are difficult. Balancing the needs of people, impact on the planet and making a profit is not easy (it reminds me of the trade-off between quality, speed and price -- you can only have two out of three). Perhaps I am an optimist, but as companies are increasingly held accountable for their impacts and their behavior -- both negative and positive -- there will be a steady stream of innovation leading us toward sustainability. If the past is prologue, the private sector will be the engine of change by actively selecting and deselecting winners and losers in the new paradigm.

OK … this blog is in danger of rhetorical relapse. If my little lesson is correct, those of us in the sustainability field should start taking night classes to learn other skills. In the future we won't need sustainability gurus … treating people and our planet with respect will be business as usual.

Tim Mohin is a principal consultant and team leader for EORM's growing sustainability and corporate social responsibility practice. Formerly, Tim was Apple's senior manager for supplier responsibility and led Intel's environmental and sustainability efforts. He also led the development of national environmental strategy at the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Senate, including the development of the National Environmental Technology Act. Email him by clicking here.


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