There are various definitions of sustainability. One of the most commonly accepted definitions comes from a 1987 UN Conference: “Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This sounds good, but what does it really mean?
Meeting the Needs of the Present
Think for a moment about our most basic needs: food, water, and shelter. Traditionally throughout human history, these were provided on a local, moderate scale. Food was grown locally, water came from a clean local source such as a river, and shelter was modest. In recent decades, however, this has completely changed.
Now, our food is mass-produced on huge farms using pesticides and then transported halfway around the world, which has resulted in the displacement of small farmers, pollution from pesticides, and significant energy requirements from the transportation alone. Our water supplies are strained as a result of increased demand from growing populations and reduced supply from the pollution of our waterways. Finally, the size of our shelter has increased as well: the average American home has increased in size from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,434 square feet in 2005. These homes require great amounts of energy to heat and to cool, not to mention the amount of resources used in building them in the first place.
Beyond food, water, and shelter, it’s worthwhile to look at our wants in addition to our needs. We want to have the latest electronics and gadgets, the latest fashions, the latest cars, etc. – all of which require raw materials and energy to produce, transport, and maintain, and most of which will ultimately end up in landfills. Multiply this by 300 million people in the U.S. alone, and you can begin to see how this can create a strain on a planet that has never in its history had to produce so much for so many people.
Sustainability: Beyond Green
Although sustainability is often thought of as “going green,” it actually goes beyond that. Green can be limited to environmental issues such as reducing our carbon emissions, conserving water, and minimizing waste. These are, of course, all important activities that are needed for us to work and live within the natural limits of the planet.
Sustainability, however, challenges us to look at both social and environmental impacts. When the air and water are polluted, those are not just environmental issues – they are public health issues for the people who will breathe that air and drink that water. When development expands into isolated areas, the effects go beyond just the loss of forests and habitat destruction – it’s a cultural issue for indigenous people who may lose their traditional way of life. When oil spills occur, the effects aren’t limited to the loss of animal life and damage to ecosystems – they are a blow to local communities and people whose livelihoods are threatened.
By examining more closely the interactions among our economic activity, our environmental impacts, and our social impacts, we can begin to understand how sustainability is, ultimately, a much more holistic and comprehensive way of looking at our lives and understanding the world in which we live.
The Implications of Sustainability for Business
This is why the triple bottom line has emerged as an important concept in sustainable business. The triple bottom line takes into account that every business needs to be financially profitable – the traditional “bottom line” of business. In addition to this, it takes into consideration the environmental impact as a result of business operations (such as its use of energy and water) and its social impact as well (such as its treatment of employees and people in the local community). The idea is that for a business to be sustainable in the long-term, it will need to be profitable in a way that operates within natural limits and respects the well-being of people affected by the business. In short, it will need to factor people, planet, and profit into all business considerations.
This is not a perfect model, of course, and many businesses large and small are struggling to adapt to it. After all, it goes against traditional business practices, which have focused solely on maximizing profits. On a positive note, there are interesting and innovative models emerging that are helping to pave the way for sustainable business, such as B Corps.
Sustainability can actually be quite complex and is subject to different interpretations. How would you define sustainability? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.