DEFINING SUSTAINABILITY

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July 17, 2013

Dr. Tyra OldhamSustainable Voice News

Sustainability derived more prominently after an article was published in the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report in 1987 that referenced the Brundtland Report. The Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland stated, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Also, within this period the formation of the organization, SustainAbility was developed to support sustainable development for businesses focusing on socioeconomic development and the environment.  What followed was the integration these three principals that John Elkington advanced as the Triple Bottom Line (TBL and/or 3BL) considering people, planet and profit to measure an organizations bottom line that is now supported in corporate social responsibility (CSR).

In the industrial age financial growth was used as the only indicator of business success. The intelligence age derived through knowledge management has revealed that not only is financial success important yet, considering other factors are equally as important. The long-term view and lens cannot be based on economics alone when the global necessity requires global accountability of our environment. The shareholder wealth model is a short term model benefiting the few. Therefore, the expansive view of what is important is a consideration of the stakeholders. This calls into question who is and what is a stakeholder? Stakeholders are inclusive of the company, employees, and beyond. Stakeholders fall into the category of community, environment, customers and the ubiquitous supply chain that is inclusive of everywhere a company manufactures, distributes, serves or has a footprint. This is an opportunity to look expansively and broadly at the organization’s reach.

It is necessary to note that green and sustainable companies are looking at providing solutions that enable sustainability. Yet, the role of a green consultant is to support the customers’ needs and impose structure to assist in collaborative change. What occurs when companies and organizations do not identify with growing changes and best practices? They fail to remain sustainable or adopt new technologies that isolate them from knowledge. Green consultants impose disruptive change to identify opportunities, needs and define the business case persuasively.

Further, the amount of data that a company manages can make the transition of sustainability murky. Data can force companies to virtually search for answers reducing innovation and resisting change versus analyzing results for continuous improvement. To date, it has been easier to quantify and qualify financial data for ROI. The influence of ROI, is expanding to include optimizing return across platforms. There is now a moving trend to supporting the importance of social, economic and environmental factors. Sustainability synthesizes these factors for efficiencies that are profoundly connected and indivisible. When we take the next step to understand that environmental, energy, resource and waste results are critical components to the whole organizations are in sustainable thinking. This is why we believe that a company should not operate in any other structure than in sustainability.

Even though the word sustainability is discussed and the definition is easily understood the practice is complex but doable.   Sustainability is a first order action for any organization subjugating all actions, systems and operations. Companies and organizations can assert the use of sustainability under the rubric (leadership facility; environment; process; technologies; supply chain; and organizational intelligence) in part, divisional or whole organization inclusive of supply chain.

Sustainability is complex and counter intuitive to the models of ole’ that are aligned to financial return-on-investment (ROI); whereas, sustainability measures efficiency with ROI attributed to changes of today effecting tomorrow within operations, environment, energy, resources and technologies.  Further, sustainability is top-to-bottom-bottom-to-top integration.

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