What is Sustainability? (And How It Gives You a Competitive Edge)

What is Sustainability? (And How It Gives You a Competitive Edge)

When was the last time that you used a rotary phone?

It’s probably been at least a decade, if not longer, for most of us (and don’t even bother to ask the Millenials).

They’re relics of the past, replaced by technology that is better and faster.

Many of our business practices and beliefs are just like the rotary phone: they were developed during a different era, in which they were widely used and met the needs of those times.

However, those outdated practices are not suited to the needs of the present, much less the future.

Like the rotary phone, outdated business practices have been replaced with sustainable business practices, which are being embraced by forward-thinking businesses that want to do the right thing and gain a competitive advantage.

What Does Sustainability Mean?

Sustainability can be defined in different ways. One of the most commonly accepted definitions comes from a 1987 UN Report:

Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Think for a moment about our most basic needs: food, water, and shelter. Throughout human history, these were provided on a local, moderate scale. In recent decades, however, this has completely changed.

sustainability needs food water shelter

Beyond food, water, and shelter, it’s also 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.

The U.N.’s definition of sustainability was addressing this problem: if we, the current generation, deplete the planet’s resources meeting our needs and wants, we don’t leave sufficient resources for future generations.

Simply put, we are not operating sustainably.

Key Drivers for Sustainability

Event though it has been, and continues to be, widely accepted that a business exists only to make money, a growing awareness of sustainability has called this into question.

It’s not that a business can’t make money, but the focus is now on how a business makes money.

What has prompted this focus on sustainability in business?

While many factors have come into play, a few key drivers have spurred the movement.

drivers of sustainability

These are just a few of the drivers for sustainability. Taken together, however, they result in what we see today: a growing awareness that business as usual is harming people and the planet and a demand that businesses operate in a more responsible manner.

Many of our activities – from driving to eating meat – result in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. As a result of this, the planet’s climate is warming, triggering a chain reaction of the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, increased weather volatility such as storms and droughts, and the destruction of habitats.

In addition, we’ve drilled for oil, cut down forests, and polluted rivers and lakes without regard to how long it would take the planet to replenish those resources. However, just one look at the famous picture of the blue marble shows that our planet is finite, which means that its resources are generally finite as well (with the exception of certain renewables such as wind and sunlight).

Simply put, there’s only so much water, lumber, and minerals available on the planet. To expect infinite resources on a finite planet is simply unrealistic.

Along with the environmental impact, there’s also been a negative social impact.

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.

As we look back on events from recent years – the Wall Street meltdown, the BP oil spill, and the horrific collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, to name just a few  – we clearly see how the pursuit of profit at all costs can do terrible damage to both people and the environment.

In light of all of these developments, it’s not a surprise that consumers are voting with their dollars, supporting those businesses that act responsibly and avoiding those that do not.

This demand has gotten the attention of businesses both large and small, spurring them to adopt sustainable business practices at growing rates.

The Business Case for Sustainability

Fortunately, although the science and realization of the impacts of our actions can be disheartening, something positive has come out of this: a growing awareness about sustainability that enables us to understand the interactions among our economic activity, our environmental impacts, and our social impacts.

In fact, this is a case in which doing good can also help a business do well, since there is a strong business case to be made for sustainable business practices.

This is why the triple bottom line has emerged as an important concept in sustainable business: it takes into account that every business needs to be financially profitable – the traditional “bottom line” of business – along with 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).

business case for sustainability

These are just a few examples, but they illustrate why there is a strong business case to be made for sustainability.

Conserving resources by making changes such as upgrading your lights and toilets saves important natural resources and also saves you money. Cutting back on paper usage also saves resources and can result in significant cost savings – in fact, switching to double-sided printing on your copy machine will yield an instant 50% reduction in your paper costs.

On the revenue side, you can tap new markets with green products and services, attracting new customers and building loyalty for your brand. Studies show that employees want to work for companies that align with their values, so you’ll also have a competitive advantage in recruiting, engaging, and retaining talented employees.

To sum this up, this is how you can gain a competitive edge over others in your field:

Run a profitable, socially and environmentally responsible business by conserving resources and reducing expenses while engaging employees and building customer loyalty.

Next Steps

Conduct an assessment of your sustainability practices to see where your sustainability program is already doing well and identify opportunities for improvement.