Understanding Sustainability

See also: The Benefits of Improving Sustainability

There is general agreement that ‘sustainability’ is important, but it is not always clear that we all share the same understanding of the meaning of the term.

For some people, it is very definitely a synonym for ‘environmentally friendly’. However, that is certainly not the whole meaning in business, where sustainable simply means that it will be able to keep going into the future.

This page explains some of the meanings, and develops clear definitions of the term ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’. It also explores the ‘three pillars’ of sustainability, known informally as profits, planet and people.

What is Sustainability?

Defining sustainability

sustain, v. t. to hold up, to bear, to keep going, to prolong.

Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

sustainability “focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”

Source: Investopedia

A sustainable business model is one that allows a business to thrive today, but without ‘mortgaging the future’ by taking on unreasonable commitments or debts, or by using resources that cannot be replaced.

The idea of sustainability is to encourage businesses to operate thinking about the years and decades ahead, rather than simply the next few months or weeks. It also requires them to look beyond profits and at their wider impact on the planet and on society.

On a personal level, living a ‘sustainable’ life means ensuring that you do not use more than your fair share of the planet’s resources, and that you try to put back at least as much as you use. This requires you to look for options that will not be damaging to the planet, but are within your budget.

Sustainability is therefore complex and involves several separate elements.

Sustainable is not the same as eco-friendly

To read some sources, you would think that ‘sustainable’ was a synonym for ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘environmentally friendly’. This is not strictly true.

Environmental issues are unmistakably important in considering sustainability. It is, after all, impossible to sustain a lifestyle or business that uses too many resources, and this includes environmental resources.

However, sustainable in business terms also means financially stable and a model that can be kept going. A sustainable business must be able to operate in the long term. In other words, making choices that are environmentally friendly, but not affordable for the business, is not sustainable.

Three Pillars of Sustainability.  Economic, Environmental, and Social

Three Pillars of Sustainability

The concept of sustainability is built around three ‘pillars’: economic, environmental, and social. These are known informally as profits, planet, and people. The three are considered to be equally important.

  • The economic pillar describes the need for businesses to make a profit in order to survive.

    Nobody would argue with the idea that a business needs to make a profit to survive.

    Profits are therefore a key element of sustaining a business. However, one reason why corporate social responsibility became an important issue was that there was a growing view that businesses could not afford to focus solely on profits.

    In other words, a sustainable business must make a profit, but not at the expense of people or the planet.

  • The environmental pillar describes actions taken by a business or individual to reduce its impact on the planet.

    For some businesses, the environmental aspects are huge. For energy companies, for example, finding new, renewable sources of energy has become a major concern. However, all businesses can take steps to reduce the resources that they use—and in many cases, this will also have a positive effect on their profits. For example:

    • Using less packaging is both less resource-intensive, and also cheaper;
    • Encouraging staff travel by public transport rather than by car, especially with advance booking, can be significantly cheaper as well as more environmentally-friendly; and
    • Reusing and recycling more can also be cheaper than paying to dispose of waste in landfill sites.

    Individuals can also take action to reduce their environmental impact. However, when making decisions, it is important to be aware of hidden impacts and costs. For example, you may choose to use cleaning cloths rather than kitchen paper. However, you will need to wash those cloths, which takes both water and detergent, as well as energy if you wash them in a machine.

    Just as profits should not trump environmental concerns, environmental concerns do not, and cannot trump profits. Businesses must be able to afford their environmental choices.

  • The social pillar describes the impact of a business on people, including employees, the local community, shareholders and others.

    This pillar basically boils down to treating people ‘right’.

    For employees, this means, for example, paying fair wages and providing decent benefits within the financial constraints of the company’s operations. For shareholders, it means investing profits back into the company to keep it going, but also paying a reasonable dividend when possible and not paying excessive wages to executives.

    For the local community, it means considering aspects like keeping employment local if possible, and also supporting projects in the local community. For individuals, this covers aspects like volunteering locally, or buying from local businesses.

    There are also issues about global social responsibility. It is now generally accepted that ignorance is no defence. We all, therefore, whether businesses or individuals, have a responsibility to try to find out about the wider impacts of our actions. For example:

    • When you buy food, do you think about how far it has come, and whether the farmers who grew the crops received a fair price?
    • When you buy clothes, do you consider where they are made and under what conditions? Do you know whether the workers received a fair wage?

    The answers to these questions are not always readily available. And not everyone can always afford the luxury of buying ‘fair trade’ goods or ‘ethically produced’ alternatives.

    However, we should all at least try to consider the issues, and do as much as we can to ensure that our lifestyles are sustainable. If nobody ever asks the questions, nothing will change.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Sustainability

The big question around sustainability is whether its adoption provides advantages.

For individuals, this question is perhaps easier to answer. In purely financial terms, sustainable alternatives are closer to the ‘luxury’ end of the market. They are generally more expensive to buy. However, they may also be more durable: better quality clothes, for example, will last longer. Cloth nappies can be reused for several years, and several children.

In other words, the economics may be quite finely balanced.

There is also more to the question than simple finances.

Doing the ‘right thing’ is important. For some people, and under some circumstances, it may be worth accepting having slightly less, but with a lower planetary cost.

For more about this, you may like to read our pages on Professional Ethics, and Goodness.

For businesses, the economic element of the question is also finely balanced.

An upfront investment—for example, in reducing the amount of packaging, or developing a new form of packaging that uses less cardboard—may result in lower operating costs.

Businesses must also, however, take into account the reputational costs of failing to demonstrate that they are operating sustainably. After all, the concept of sustainability in business emerged from the sense that the world was being damaged by businesses focusing only on short-term profits. Few businesses can afford to be seen as damaging the planet, or their local communities.

Demonstrating sustainability has therefore become an important part of doing business, for both large and small companies.

A final thought

Creating a more sustainable approach to living requires us all to make both large and small changes to our lives. To do so, it is important to understand what we mean by ‘sustainable’, so that we are all working in the same direction.

However, even without this shared understanding, it is still possible for individuals to make small changes to their own lives that may have a much bigger impact on the world. After all, large oaks grow from little acorns.