Sustainability. It’s a term that’s seemingly bandied about everywhere these days. But what does this term “sustainability” even mean? That’s a common question among many and can still be relatively confusing in some ways (even amongst a group of sustainability professional peers recently devising a sustainability narrative for our industry proved not to be the shortest of tasks!). For some, “sustainability” can mean becoming more energy or water efficient, or reducing carbon emissions. For others it means protecting rare or endangered plant or animal species. For some it can mean gaining a social licence to operate, gender equality, or good health and well-being. For some it’s much broader in looking at ways to provide a better life for those in a given community, be it local, regional or global.
Sustainability can, in some ways, mean these things. It’s so much more than that, however. It’s something that contains many interlinked, interrelated aspects that are greater than the sum of the parts.
I’m not going to delve to closely into the subject of the definition of sustainability here, but let’s take a close look at the word itself – sustainability. Sustain-ability. The ability to sustain. Sustaining our businesses and the socio-economic imperatives behind doing so. Sustaining the things that sustain our business and make it possible to do what we do – our supply chains, our service providers, raw materials and the “free” services and products provided by our natural environmental.
This is where we need to ask the questions such as – what are we sustaining and why? What are the fundamental things that we can influence within and as a result of the operation of our organisations? What are the things that are crucial to the long-term, responsible operation of our organisations?
It is possible to “make a difference” (a positive difference, I hasten to add) and make money at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive, and there are plenty of cases in point to demonstrate that. In fact, “sustainability” does not have to cost more. I really believe we need to move away from this very limiting, “old school” notion. In this it is very important to understand the value your business or operations are providing and the value drivers for sustainability in the business.
The application of strategic sustainability thinking can create value on a number of levels, not just commercial. It can help attract (and retain) the right kinds and mixes of employees, associates and partners. Taking on a culture of sustainability can also help challenge the view of what we currently have. It can also enable us to think on things from a different angle and make options viable that may previously have been unviable, or even unimagined.
Sustainability thinking is very much akin to systematic thinking. It provides a wider perspective and a strategic perspective – helping to gain better understanding of interdependence between issues, and facilitate a greater understanding of where perhaps working on one area or influencing one aspect of an operation or project might have an impact (positive or negative) in another aspect. It can help make the connection between different aspects of a business, enabling problems, issues or even perceived opportunities to be viewed from different vantage points, make connections that previously were not considered, or make cost-savings or other efficiencies which may not have been previously apparent. In this respect, adopting a culture of sustainability can provide all manner of different options for businesses, both strategically and operationally.