What is sustainability and why should it matter?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been struggling to find the ideal definition of sustainability. The current definitions referring to the balance of economic, environmental, political and social activities seem too broad to effectively and practically implement. That’s particularly true if you look at it from a business context. How can you effectively and meaningfully introduce sustainability into your current business operations, so that it generates overall and real value? As the old adage goes, you can’t measure what you can’t monitor.

In today’s highly competitive market with continuing pressure on reputation and responsible business practices, it has become even more critical and necessary but if we don’t reach a consensus on the definition of sustainability, how can we declare that our company, its processes and products are sustainable? The simpler options are usually to focus on environmental sustainability (risk management for manufacturing operations) or Corporate Social Investment (placeholder for community-based activities). What about the business of sustainability?

The key behind economic measurement of sustainability is in defining a realistic way to measure the value created from these practices. The starting point is defining the type of value being generated,

  • Economic, environmental and/or social value
  • Determine tangible (measurable) impacts and benefits generated

Easier said than done, right?

Most companies feel overwhelmed by this process – let’s face it, measuring social value can often fall into the intangible measurement bucket. How can you effectively measure the impact of your social investment? How many lives has your company impacted directly or indirectly and what’s the right metric to use? Environmental sustainability topics tend to fare slightly better – are your processes legally compliant? How effectively are you managing your risks? Don’t even get me started on economic impact – it starts with whether or not your processes and products can be deemed sustainable or as recently expressed at an integrated reporting training I attended, are you less unsustainable than before? It almost makes you want to throw up your hands and give up (!)…But that’s not what we do. Companies that have taken on this challenge head-on are seen as visionary and leaders not only in their industry sector but also in a broader context.

But why should this matter to you?

Becoming a more sustainable company can lead to benefits related to revenue, reliability and reputation. This has already been extensively documented – just look at companies like Interface, Nike, Levis and Unilever (to name just a few) who have been able to generate economic, environmental, social and reputational benefits by adopting sustainable thinking and innovations in their business and design practices. One of the points of commonality is both innovative thinking and insistence that there be no compromise on product performance. Not only have they managed to achieve this to some degree (and are still trying), but they have done so in a way that has resulted in significant cost advantages and positive environmental benefits.

But what makes up a visionary sustainable company and how can you capitalise on their lessons learned? What are the values they hold close and how does it translate to their sustainability practices? The implementation of a sound sustainability agenda seems closely linked to the personal value system of their leaders. Just look at leaders like Unilever’s Paul Polman or Interface’s Ray Anderson.

But is this accessible to the average business?

I think so. Sustainability has often been referred to as a journey rather than a destination. So where should you start? In my opinion, this should be with your company’s vision, closely followed by “getting your house in order”. There is a need to enhance and build on existing operations. We’re not necessarily advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater but rather look at enhancing your current operations. Environmental and labour compliance (local and global practices) is often considered a basic building block. Compliance, done right, can also create an opportunity for process efficiency and potential cost savings, the holy grail for most businesses wanting to justify the initial spend.

What about the inspiration?

What could it mean to your organisation to run more efficiently with the potential for cost savings? Can you develop a meaningful way to tackle your sustainability issues and create business value at the same time? Can it really be an inspiring way of doing business, attracting the right customers, suppliers and employees? Hmmm…the answer lies in how you are engaging with sustainability in your organisation and with your partners/stakeholders,

  • Why are you doing these activities?
  • What are the benefits?
  • Is there a more efficient way of meeting your objectives?
  • Is it actually sustainable?

What are leaders in this field doing differently? When we look at the qualities and values of companies we admire, what do we have in common, or more specifically, what can we take from their example?

If the implementation of sustainable practices is considered a journey, why can’t its definition? Perhaps it’s time to break loose from the shackles, a limiting or overly-conceptual definition creates (let’s agree on some principles instead) and rather focus on creating a sustainable path for your organisation, with clear inspirational and aspirational values. The essence and need for sustainability should be well defined, but don’t get stuck on tight definitions – it’s a slightly different journey for each organisation. In my view, it’s a journey that involves enhancing your current operations, becoming a leader and preparing your team to not just manage the challenges, but evolve the organisation –  effectively challenging “business as usual” thinking.

What’s your definition? How does this link to your company’s value system? Share your definitions and let us know what you think are the ideal sustainable values a company should embody.

About the Author

Matt Royal

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