The term Sustainability, and the associated term Sustainable Development, have been used in many broad and differing contexts.
As a result, their meanings and conceptual use have been diluted. In fact, there is not one singular definition of sustainability and different theorists or schools of thought have presented their own versions. The World Commission on the Environment and Development in 1987 (arguably the most commonly cited source) defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. While the definitions vary, ultimately, sustainability must be applied appropriately within each discipline by most effectively incorporating the three pillars of sustainable development within the relevant framework. The three pillars of sustainable development are: Society, Environment and Economy. As such, sustainability for business, or corporate sustainability, has been defined as, “adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.”
Sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line
The triple bottom line refers to a bottom line that incorporates the three pillars of sustainable development, therefore in addition to measuring profits (economy) it also measures the organizations impact on people (society) and the planet (environment). An organization stands to profit by improving its triple bottom line and ensuring that a sustainability strategy is developed that compliments the goals and objectives of each business area of the organization. Developing a sustainability strategy is a vital initialstageof achieving sustainability as it determines the most effective approach that will be taken by the organization. A sustainability strategist must therefore have a broad range of skills and knowledge in order to achieve this goal.
A new type of thinking is essential if mankind if to survive and move toward higher levels – Albert Einstein.
Corporate sustainability requires a systems-based approach since it integrates the three pillars of sustainability throughout the organization’s operations and it’s planning and measurement systems. Systems based approaches entail “management thinking that emphasizes the interdependence and interactive nature of elements within and external to an organization.” A strategist must therefore have an understanding of the organization in order to know where to apply changes, coupled with substantial external knowledge and skills regarding environmental and social issues and the necessary tools available for overcoming the challenges an organization faces as a result of these issues. A strategist must therefore have technical knowledge to best identify and implement technical solutions necessary for achieving the desired aims. A strategist must understand current practices and encourage behavioural change were necessary; behavioural change can have a significant impact on corporate sustainability and on cost savings, most significantly energy behaviour change and water behaviour change. Behavioural change often involves limited CAPEX, it can yield significant returns and have a meaningful impact on achieving sustainable development.
It is also important for a strategist to grasp and defend the financial business case for sustainable development in order to ensure and maximise positive ROI. Lastly, for sustainable development to show promise the delivery of the strategy must be thorough and of a high quality, thus ensuring approval and successful implementation. This includes applying a clear and defined process with detailed methods and modes of action for implementing the strategy and achieving the desired aims and objectives. It is also important to develop means to monitor and measure progress, thus ensuring that the relevance and effectiveness of the strategy within the organization.
One of the definitions of environmental sustainability, that of Robert Ayres, emphasises that development should not harm or disturb the delicate balance of natural ecological cycles. Applying this logic to the corporate context, all a strategists’ skills and resources must go towards ensuring that sustainability practices enhance, rather than impede, a business’s existing strategies and activities. In so doing, strategists can help businesses maintain their current stakeholder and enterprise expectations—and go beyond them.