Defining Sustainability

Defining Sustainability

There are scores of different terms for something that many of us refer to as sustainability. These terms include corporate responsibility, sustainable development, corporate citizenship, environmental sustainability, corporate sustainability and green business. For these terms, there are literally hundreds of different definitions. So where do we find some guidance on how to make sustainability operational for an organization? Such an organization might be an individual, a family, neighborhood, community or local business. All corporations consist of local businesses of their own and their supply chain. For those of you working with the corporation perspective, we should be able to roll up this simple definition to help you out.

In desperation, everyone has a default position: "Use the Brundtland Commission definition!" We all know what this is by now. It's a durable definition because it is flexible and open to interpretation. However, it literally begs the question asked here. People will always need food, water, energy and shelter to survive. Yet, to thrive will certainly take more than that. We should not presume to know beyond our own most basic needs what future generations will need to thrive. We can presume that they will value having choice just as we have had choices now and in the past. Because values, politics and our understanding of the Earth and its systems are still evolving, notions of what is sustainable will never be static or sure.

However, the biggest problem with the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development is that it says nothing about making sustainability operational. Sustainability is about behaving in a way that can be continued or sustained. To operate sustainably, an organization must act in a way that is consistent with and supports the well-being of the physical environment and all of the biological communities and economies of the locations where they operate. The definition and the report do not tell us how to do this.

Organizations seeking to operate sustainably must consider how their vision, mission and values (i.e., even individuals and families have such concepts even if they are not in writing) affect each of the following responsibilities:

1.    Their financial performance and the broader economic prosperity of their community — you need both;
2.    The environment including the availability of all resources (energy and water) and materials and the handling of all wastes; and
3.    The well being of all life (ecosystems) in the local and global communities in which they operate.

Organizations should think globally but act locally.

Sustainability is achieved in operations by managing operational risks and acting on improvement opportunities recognizing responsibility for integrating economic, environmental and social outcomes.

To be sustained, sustainability must be an integral part of the way the organization operates. This is best accomplished by including the three responsibilities into an integrated management system. There are a number of management systems that can be used to help the organization in this regard (e.g., ISO 9001, ISO 14001, AS 4360, OHSAS 18001, SA 8000, and BS 8900).

Sustainability should adopt a positive view of the future (i.e., not be focused on "doing less of a bad thing") and use the 15 leading indicators found in commonly available business excellence frameworks (see my previous blog). These frameworks now exist in about 75 countries.

Sustainability requires a commitment to achieve continual improvement through the use of process improvement methods (e.g., lean and six sigma). When an integrated management system and a business excellence framework are used together, a demand is created for continual improvement.

Sustainability doesn't require any fancy slogans such as "triple bottom line" or "people, planet, profits." These slogans are distracting and not completely relevant to most organizations. Each organization should determine how it can effectively drive the sustainability process through its focus on outcomes that enhance its continuity (i.e., managing operational risk) and addressing its three responsibilities. All projects should address these needs and be selected and reviewed with the engagement of key stakeholders. It is important to make the program operational at the local level with genuine employee involvement.

If it were this simple, I would not be writing this blog. But, maybe it really is this simple if we can step from behind the biases that we bring to this important understanding. Many people are so loyal to the Brundtland Commission definition that they cannot think about such things. I think they will need to deal with this if they want effective operational programs!

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.