Sustainability is one of those words that bursts on the scene and seems like a simple concept. Like many things in life though, applying the simple concept in the complex real world is much more challenging. Most large organizations now have a “sustainable business model”. Upon closer inspection though we find that many have a very limited understanding of the concept and an even more limited implementation of even those principles. Of late the term Greenwashing has been used for such organizations. Greenwashing is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s aims and policies are environmentally friendly. To avoid falling into the trap of rushing to implement Sustainable programs that don’t really meet the expectations of society, I think it’s necessary to understand the origin and original purpose of Sustainable Development.
The Sustainability movement traces its origin back to the 1987 report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our Common Future, by the Brundtland Commission, took the output of a 3 year discourse, sponsored by the United Nations, on environmental issues. These discussions ultimately coalesced into the sustainability movement. The central idea of sustainability is that of Sustainable Development. Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, Chapter 2).
I think the concept of meeting the needs of today without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs easy to identify as important. You need only look into the eyes of a child and see their young dreams of the future they will have to know we must protect the resources needed for that future.
Another way to conceptualize the Sustainability movement is that it is confluence of EHS, Economics and Social Change disciplines. The concepts and tools of EHS (protect people and the natural world) are the underpinnings of sustainability. But to achieve these objectives on a nation-state or global scale requires use of economic processes and change at the societal level. Economics is the fairest process human beings have created to distribute the rewards for productive effort (concept from the Ayn Rand “Money Speech“). I realize the world’s economic systems are not perfect but they outperform any other methods up to this point.
In the mid 1990’s, John Elkington, an academic from the United Kingdom contributed the Triple Bottom Line to the Sustainability movement. The Triple Bottom Line is an economic theory that states that the value of an organization can be measured by its success in Economic, Societal and Environmental terms.
Use the triple bottom line as a guide to identify activities that make a business sustainable. To take this further would take us beyond the concise scope of this post. We’ll get into more particulars about implementation in other posts. You’ve probably had enough of my writing for one night anyway…