Nowadays, the word sustainability is pretty mainstream. Most people acknowledge that it's important but don't really have a firm grasp on what it means or why it should matter to them personally. So we have our work cut out for us to spread knowledge and awareness and help answer the all-important question "what do you want me to do about it?"
Let's start with the definition. Unless you consume sustainability news every day, you may only become aware of this concept when certain ideas or issues cross your consciousness, like when you see your neighbor installing solar panels on her roof, or you see recycling bins in an airport, or you're checking out the organic vegetables at the grocery store.
Even for sustainability professionals, it can be challenging to keep in mind all that is necessary to consider when thinking about this topic. It's a complex topic, and there are many opinions and perspectives about what it means. The International Society of Sustainability Professionals lists more than 300 terms in their study guide for the Sustainability Associate exam!
Let's get on the same page with this definition. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission established a definition that many accept as a way, to sum up, a wide-reaching concept such as sustainable development. Sustainability means development and growth today, without compromising the ability of future generations to develop and grow. Some common applications of this include practices like recycling to reduce waste and reducing the need to produce new components or extract additional raw materials from the earth.
Renewable resources, like harnessing the sun, wind, or water for energy is an example of approaching development today in a way that ensures future generations can develop since there will always be an unlimited supply of these.
Other examples include using plants or other natural materials that can be quickly grown and harvested. This is preferred over using resources that cannot be replaced at all or within a few decades, such as petroleum-based products and plastics. You may have heard of the many hospitality companies that have removed plastic straws from their operations. We do not have to do without straws altogether. In fact, people with certain types of disabilities need straws. Options can now be found made of paper, bamboo, and avocado seeds.
If it seems like sustainability entails many topics, it does! One of the most recognized frameworks for thinking about sustainability is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The SDGs include 17 categories, or goals, and 169 target objectives, which cover the full spectrum of issues we must address in order to meet the aim of development that protects people and resources both now and for the future. These goals include No Poverty, No Hunger, Gender Equality, Clean Energy, Quality Education, Climate Action, and many more. The SDGs offer a well-organized framework for selecting your sustainability priorities and learning more about the associated issues and how your organization can contribute to the advancement of these goals. If you are not already familiar with the SDGs, I encourage you to learn more at the website sdgs.un.org. Or use your favorite search engine and simply enter SDGs.
Another common term associated with sustainability is ESG, which stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. In each category, there are a number of factors to consider, such as what are the company's environmental policies and actions? How do they impact the communities in which they operate? And how do the company's leaders promote fairness and diversity?
The ESG acronym is often sought out by those who wish to invest responsibly. And there is research that shows a positive correlation between high levels of ESG performance and stock market performance.
You may have also heard of CSR or corporate social responsibility, or just corporate responsibility. This tends to be synonymous with sustainability, but some people make a distinction because CSR has more focus on the 'social' aspect; however, sustainability is truly a triple bottom line concept, which is why that is the term I like to use most. The triple bottom line stands for people, planet, and profit, or prosperity.
To best understand this concept of the triple bottom line, imaging three circles inside of each other. The innermost, smallest circle is the economy. The next circle is people. And the largest, outer circle is the planet. A healthy economy, which we all want, is not possible without healthy people. Healthy people require a healthy planet. This shows the interconnectedness of it all and helps us understand that the health of one can not come at the sacrifice of another.
Let's further break down the concept of the triple bottom line from a business perspective. It means a company operates with the aim of achieving positive returns in three areas: economic, social, and environmental. Since businesses pull from resources in all three domains, the concept of the triple bottom line suggests companies ought to deposit back equal to or more than what they pulled from each. This is already expected in the economic domain. Equity and debt financing operate on this principle. On the social level, companies pay for the labor they receive from people so to some extent we operate on this principle already, but overall when it comes to the overall wellbeing of employees and impacts to society as a whole, many companies are operating in the red. And in the area of the environment, businesses generally have to pay for the usage of electricity or water, but they are not paying for the far-reaching or long-range damage their operations cause to the environment.
Continuing on the definition just provided, the concept of sustainability is grounded in the idea that there are resources that no one owns but we all benefit from; therefore we all have a responsibility to care for these resources in such a way that they are available for both current and future production. These resources, including air, oceans and waterways, and wildlife are called ecosystem services – meaning they provide us with live-giving output. So when one particular entity tries to take ownership of or destroy elements of these, that should concern us.
The challenge with the notion that no one owns these resources is that it becomes difficult to assign responsibility for when things go wrong, when there is harm. Examples of such destruction include air pollution, bees and other pollinators killed by chemicals and poor land management, polluted riverways, and so much more damage to our environment.
This is known as Tragedy of the Commons. Unfortunately, such destruction can often disproportionately harm those without resources or a voice to protect their environment. Therefore, organizations and governments need to be held accountable for their impact that damages society and the planet.
While for many of us, a sense of obligation compels us to pursue sustainability, the reality is many decision-makers are still looking to justify sustainability with an economic business case. The business case can be made by showing how sustainability lowers costs, leads to innovation and differentiation, reduces risk, and improves relationships with employees and other stakeholders. Part of your leadership role in driving positive change is to view and present the strategic and financial justification for sustainability. I will address this more in a later lesson.
In the next lesson, you will hear about the connections between sustainability and leadership.