Is Environmental Sustainability an Oxymoron?

Is Environmental Sustainability an Oxymoron?

When we learn about sustainability, it is usually characterized by the euphemism, the triple bottom line. Some people refer to this as the three pillars. Others refer to it as the three responsibilities: environment, social, and economic. I really like this one. Everyone can understand the word "responsibility." The Economist even had an advertisement pictured on a bottle cap that stated, "Think responsibly." How apropos!  

I began to think of the concept of social responsibility (CSR) as being independent from a program that integrates all three responsibilities in the same program. The CRS leaders assured me that the environmental component was in there. While it may have been difficult to find, I just took their word since they were working very hard to be as accountable and transparent as they could be.  

Then out of the clear blue came the parallel dimension of environmental sustainability. One company states on its web site, "We are a committed leader in environmental sustainability." Now I don't mean to question this assertion, but sustainability is supposed to have three responsibilities! Is this a backlash to the CSR folks? The company goes on to declare, "It is our responsibility (they use the word) to help solve issues facing the planet, support education for tomorrow's innovators, and empower people across the globe to work toward a better future." Well, it does sound like there is some social element in there! It's a given that the program is profitable. I know that.

So where did this term — environmental sustainability — come from? In the first of over 7 million Google hits is the heading, "Environmental Sustainability: It's Closer Than You Think." The article's byline info includes this: "We invite the listeners to imagine a world in which socially responsible and eco-friendly practices actually boost a company's bottom line." Again, that's the three responsibilities, but with the oxymoronic title!

Wikipedia has an entry that states, "Environmental sustainability is the process of making sure current processes of interaction with the environment are pursued with the idea of keeping the environment as pristine as naturally possible." Why wouldn't we call this "environmental stewardship?" Many companies actually still use this term, but it less popular these days with only 1.3 million hits on Google. I am still comfortable knowing that sustainability produced over 29 million hits on Google – 22 million more than environmental sustainability. However, the gap is closing fast.

In my sustainability course at Harvard University, we discuss how difficult it can be to separate the responsibilities from each other. If one examines a successful environmental project, it is very likely that there are some social and economic benefits that are derived from it. By recognizing these side benefits, it may be possible to balance the three responsibilities in a way that does the most good for the community. In my mind, this is what sustainability is all about. One cannot maximize environmental benefits and expect that sustainability will be achieved. It's all about balance of all three responsibilities.

I know that I will not convert any of you firmly committed environmental sustainability fans with this blog posting. But it is real hard to get this sense of balance when the other two responsibilities are partially hidden from view.
Robert B. Pojasek, Ph.D., is the Practice Leader for Business Sustainability at First Environment Inc. and an internationally recognized authority on the topic of business sustainability and process improvement.