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Industry Insight

What Is Sustainability?

A question posed and posted by GreenBiz’s Joel Makower a little over a month ago asks,

By Richard Romano
Published: May 3, 2013

A question posed and posted by GreenBiz’s Joel Makower a little over a month ago asks, “What is sustainability anyway?” Admittedly, it’s a question we have asked on the Going Green blog at various times over my three-year tenure and whilst it is easy to come up with abstract theories, and perhaps loosely defined mission statements, identifying concrete steps has tended to be elusive. But perhaps even more importantly, how do we get people excited about sustainability? After all, getting people fired up about something is the best way of achieving success. And back in February, when I attended the GreenBiz Forum in New York, there was no shortage of excitement about the topic. However, that was a decidedly self-selected sample. How do we engender that kind of excitement amongst those for whom sustainability is scarcely on the radar? Or, in the case if the printing industry, when broaching the subject of environmental sustainability often results in a rolling of the eyes and complaints about “all those %$#& regulations.” What can be done? First, I suppose, we need to answer the question, “What is sustainability?” Mr. Makower, in his post, runs through a litany of definitions from around the Web, from Wikipedia to the EPA, but finds perhaps the best definition from a consultancy called SustainAbility:
While sustainability is about the future of our society, for today’s industries and businesses, it is also about commercial success. The mandate to transform businesses to respect environmental limits while fulfilling social wants and needs has become an unparalleled platform for innovation on strategy, design, manufacturing and brand, offering massive opportunities to compete and to adapt to a rapidly evolving world.
Not a lot in terms of action items, but there is a hint of how to instill the excitement that is a prerequisite to pursuing any action items. That is, the best way to get anyone excited about anything—sad to say—is money. Commercial success. Talk to any company that has implemented sustainable practices, and nine times out of 10 you will find that it has, if not made, then it has saved them money. Sustainability is largely about reducing waste—and there are few downsides (if any) to reducing waste. But there must be more to it than that—and there is. In a follow-up to Mr. Makower’s post, Bob Willard and Chad Park look for a possible “gold standard” for sustainable businesses. They identify Interface’s Mission Zero initiative, which is broken down into three broad areas:
Sustain the environment by taking nothing from the earth that we cannot easily and rapidly replace. Sustain society by educating our employees and associates on our impact on the environment and helping them create solutions that reduce our footprint. Sustain our economic health by creating products and solutions that are not only environmentally-friendly, but profitable as well.
The last one raises a good point: the company must be able to sustain itself, and that means being profitable. There are also The Four System Conditions that can be used as guiding principles for sustainable businesses. Ultimately, it's about being innovative. Anyone who is serious about their business thrives on being innovative—or at least they should. After all, that's what gets the real entrepreneur excited.

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.



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