If you are into business news, you can´t turn on your tv, read a newspaper or browse the internet without hearing about sustainability. But what does it actually mean? Does it make sense at all to talk about being more or less sustainable or is it just like pregnancy: either you are or you are not?
Sustainability is like the word disruption. It is hot. It is trendy. And everyone talks about it without knowing exactly what it stands for.
I have worked with sustainability in the corporate world for more than a decade and I admit that it can be a hard notion to grasp. I suspect that the fluffiness of the word is due to a general mix up of what we refer to, when we say sustainable.
When talking about being a sustainable business it might clarify some things if you divide your business into these three areas and ask some questions regarding the sustainability of each section.
Social sustainability: Do you offer ethical work conditions that empower people instead of exploiting them? This also goes for your suppliers. What do you know about their work conditions? Have you ever paid them a visit? Are your employees happy at work and do they feel appreciated? Does your company contribute to your community or to society in general?
Eco-friendly sustainability: What are your products made of? Are they produced using harmful chemicals? Can they be recycled after use? How do you handle shipping, do you produce overseas and then use a lot of CO2 to ship your products?
Economic sustainability: Are you generating profit on a long term basis? The profit can be invested in the development of the business to ensure continuous growth. Profit AND planet should always be the consideration. Not one instead of the other.
Normally a business that brands itself as sustainable would refer to the eco-friendliness of their products or production. I have seen many green startups with great environmental ambitions, that unfortunately have a limited focus on economic sustainability. In the long run, this would lead to the downfall of the company, most often before they even start turning profitable.
On the other hand, if a company sells contaminating, low quality products that have a negative impact on the environment and our health, I am sure that consumers will choose a better alternative if and when it is available.
Although there are still a lot of bad - and yet very profitable -products out there, times are changing and consumers are becoming much more conscious about what they want. I am convinced that in 5-10 years time, businesses that have not given any thoughts on sustainability in terms of products or production, will cease to exist.
I have also heard of quite a few companies that have both claimed to be eco-friendly and profitable but are lacking the social part of sustainability. Who wants to buy organic t-shirts if they are being produced under horrible conditions?
Being a sustainable company means putting an effort into all three areas of your business. If one of the legs is missing, your business will not make it in the long run.
However, this is not black and white, and unfortunately we don´t live in an ideal world where sustainable products automatically go hand in hand with profit. That is why it makes sense to talk about degrees of sustainability. A business with three legs of different sizes does perhaps not have the most beautiful shape but it can still stand.
My point here is that being sustainable the whole way round costs money, time and resources and that Rome was not built in one day. You have got to take it one step at a time. As long as you are aware of what it means to be a sustainable business - and why it is important - you can start setting standards of where you want to be within each of the three areas. And remember to communicate these steps both internally and externally - most people understand that it is a journey.
So - is sustainability like being pregnant? Either you are or you are not? Well, either you have a sustainable mindset or you have not. But like a pregnancy, it takes time before you hold your newborn baby in your arms. And when that happens, the journey continues with new and different challenges and joys.