Sustainability Defined—Beyond Green Business

We’ve been engaged in some lively coffee talks lately about the topic of sustainability. Generally, marketers and communicators tend to glom onto the environmental aspects of sustainability… making sure that “green business practices” are widely publicized and celebrated. Is that the only definition?

In manufacturing circles, sustainability means that the earth was not harmed in any way in the production of said product. In energy, sustainability is synonymous with renewable. Educators talk about sustainability in terms of equipping the next generation. Regardless of the industry, it’s safe to say that sustainability is on the minds of business leaders. In fact, a 2010 report by Accenture noted that of 766 chief executives interviewed, 93 percent believed sustainability will be “important” or “very important” in the future success of their companies.

When Standing talks about sustainability, we take a deeper, more strategic view, inspired by some long-tested frameworks. As my colleague Kristin Gumper has written, one of the accepted frameworks is the Global Reporting Initiative, which quantifies and reports against multiple indicators under the triple bottom line.  Even that, though, is heavily focused on reporting. It’s also been downplayed as forgetting the importance of economics-check out this comment from McDonald’s VP of Sustainability on the company’s European operations’ economic impact report.  More and more, we see critics calling for more integrated reporting so that stakeholders, investors and employees can get a 360-degree view of who they are doing business with.

One of my new framework favorites expands upon the traditional people, planet, profit triumvirate to include culture as a fourth dimension… The Living Principles even goes as far to say that this roadmap can and should be used “to guide every decision, every day.”  It’s a fascinating way to broaden the conversation.

Here are some other insightful definitions we’ve found:

  • The most popular definition of sustainability can be traced to a 1987 UN conference, which defined sustainability as the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.
  • Interestingly, the Environmental Protection Agency offers a fairly broad definition: sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.
  • In a recent Inc. piece, Michelle Greenwald defines product sustainability as a win/win/win/win/win, with a significant impact on innovation.

There’s not a lot of discussion of how sustainability fits into an overall reputation management strategy. In my view, sustainability needs to be more than a green business buzzword; it needs to be an authentic commitment to changing the way an organization looks at itself and ultimately, runs itself… with an eye to the legacy it’s going to leave on the environment, the people it touches and the larger community. That’s when the definition becomes even clearer-and an organization can begin to shape its own unique sustainability story.