A gold standard for truly sustainable enterprises

A gold standard for truly sustainable enterprises

A question has been simmering on our back burners over the last 15 years: How would we recognize a truly sustainable enterprise if we saw one? Joel Makower’s “What is sustainability, anyway?” post asked that question and added a second one: How do we get business people, like sales reps, excited about sustainability?

From our perspective, answering the first question with clarity and rigor is critical to answering the second. The what-is-it question should have an answer with broad-based acceptance; the how-do-we-make-it-exciting question will have many answers, depending on whom we are speaking with.

Let’s start with the big picture context for the definition of a truly sustainable enterprise. Companies can’t be sustainable in an unsustainable society. We need business, as a critical component of the larger socio-ecological system, to create economic, environmental and social value. We need them not only to do no harm to ecosystems and society; we need them also to be generators and protectors of natural and social capital.

Joel’s column mentioned a rich assortment of useful definitions and descriptions of sustainable enterprises. Most of them provide guidance to help a company be more sustainable than it was before, or more sustainable than other companies in its sector.

But in our experience the companies that accrue the most business value from their sustainability efforts are distinguished by their ability to drive innovation by articulating a compelling sustainability vision for their business and monitoring performance relative to that vision. “How much closer to sustainable success are we?” is a far more compelling question than “How much less unsustainable are we?”

A crisp definition and shortlist of essential characteristics of a truly sustainable enterprise — a Gold Standard against which we could compare companies’ progress — is long overdue. This benchmark clearly would describe what the destination looks like for companies on their sustainability journey. For example, Interface’s legendary “Mission Zero” vision enables them to explain their performance relative to a desired future state of real sustainability.

The key performance indicators for truly sustainable organizations must be founded on scientifically based principles that provide the boundary conditions within which society and companies can operate indefinitely. Fortunately, scientists and thought leaders have done much of the heavy lifting for us. Natural and social science can tell us the system conditions for sustainability, either thresholds beyond which irreversible ecological damage may occur or minimum levels of well-being below which society faces divisiveness, instability or, worse, breakdown. We can use these principles as the design constraints for a rigorous and clear articulation of a sustainable enterprise. Then we can excite people in different business functions about what’s in it for them as the firm pursues its sustainability journey.

We are in the midst of a collaborative project to test this notion by analyzing the rating and assessment system that underpins the B Corp movement through the lens of the system conditions for sustainability. We anticipate that this will give us a sense of what it would take to create a Gold Standard for sustainable business. We held dialogue sessions on this topic at the Green Living Show in Toronto this month and more are planned at the Accelerate conference in Guelph, Ontario, in June. These sessions and others like them will provide stakeholder input to our collaborative work. We’ll also draw on it to provide input to the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR), and other like-minded initiatives. We invite you to join us in these ongoing consultations.

It’s well past time that we stop driving while looking in the rear-view mirror. Let’s get clear about where we need to go, together, and get on with it.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group