Rise of the New Sustainability

What do you think of when someone says "sustainability"? The latest green product? A company trying to greenwash bad behavior (or justify higher prices)? Polarizing debates over climate change? Or maybe the word evokes clichéd images of Birkenstocks or veganism.

People have used the word sustainability to mean all of these things. But at a much more fundamental level, sustainability means something more basic and essential. Sustainability is the capacity to endure - to remain diverse and productive indefinitely, and live life to the fullest without compromising the ability of future generations to do so as well.

More and more, in a deep way, individuals and organizations are beginning to recognize and reclaim this fundamental definition of sustainability and its value - to the bottom line, to achieving impact, and to quality of life. This new kind of sustainability is about being future-focused and pragmatic; authentic and creative; and defining value as something - just like the definition of sustainability itself - enduring, diverse, and productive.

Over the past year, this way of thinking about sustainability has manifested in some unexpected places. I see three trends where the "new sustainability" is poised to reshape our world in 2016.

Corporate sustainability is the new pragmatism
The landmark agreement signed in Paris this past December brought together 154 nations in a commitment to act on climate change. But less known are the thousands of commitments that the private sector has made leading up to the Paris meeting and beyond. Initiatives like We Mean Business, RE100, and the American Business Act on Climate Pledge represent corporations large and small, across every sector, who have made commitments ranging from investing in R&D; switching to renewable energy; enabling sustainable agriculture; and removing deforestation from supply chains. Why are companies game? It's simple pragmatism. Climate realities - combined with potential regulation - mean uncertainty, and uncertainty means risk. Investors are demanding companies mitigate these risks and moreover, customers are demanding sustainable products. Not even counting the environmental benefits, sustainability is a win-win for companies.

Personal sustainability and success are not at odds
Both science and experience now show that simply working more does not necessary lead to success - for individuals or for organizations. In fact, it's just the opposite. Research shows that every hour over 40 hours a week that a person works actually makes them less productive. And it's not just the quantity of hours, but the quality. Employees who say their core needs are being met at work - including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs - are 200 percent less likely to leave their employers. Increasingly, corporate executives and entrepreneurs alike are recognizing the value of personal sustainability to the bottom line. Online retail start-up Jet.com believes it's competitive advantage will be "happiness" (along with trust, transparency, and fairness). And the CEO of the health insurance behemoth Aetna is an evangelist for "experiments" such as yoga and meditation classes that have yielded sustained gains in productivity and contributed to millions in health care savings for the company. Organizations that are prioritizing personal sustainability (and not just perks like free food that tend to keep people in the office longer) are increasingly proving that balance and renewal make up the true path to sustained high performance.

Everyone should be a design thinker
Some people hear the word design and immediately think aesthetics. But design thinking in the business context is about looking at a problem through the eyes of those who experience it - and in the process, identifying unmet needs and untapped opportunities. After many years on the fringes, this kind of thinking is proving to be a mainstream business success, not just in terms of workplace culture and innovation efficiency, but in terms of profit as well. Generation Investment Management, which has developed a holistic, design-oriented approach to sustainable investing, recently reported returns of 12 percent a year, significantly beating the average for global-equity managers of about 7 percent annually. A shift from coders' conventional wisdom to more creative, customer-focused design thinking is credited by the founders of Airbnb with doubling their weekly revenue and serving as a turning point for the company. It makes sense that if business leaders and entrepreneurs can better understand what the world wants and needs, they are more likely to land on innovative solutions.

The new year is a signal for change. Change often means leaving the comfort of something you know and taking a leap of faith that whatever comes next will be better. But these trends make me optimistic about what's to come in 2016. I'm excited to see how corporations, investors, and individuals find ways to remake a world that is diverse, productive, and enduring. Or, in other words, sustainable.