Sustainability & Business: What is it and where & we now? (Part I)
This is the first of three short articles breaking down what sustainable business is and how it is positioned to effectively lead multi-sector efforts towards enhanced global sustainability performance. In Part I, the concepts of sustainability, global interconnectivity, and private-sector sustainability potential are introduced.
What is Sustainability?
Sustainability. We hear this word often in contemporary discussions about politics, economics and the environment, but what exactly does it mean? Sustainability has become a popular intersectional word, and as it becomes increasingly diluted and re-shaped for various purposes it is important that I provide a definition for which much of the following writing will be founded on. Throughout this article, sustainability will be defined as:
meeting the resource, service, and cultural needs of current and future generations without compromising the health of the ecosystems that provide them, nor diminishing overall biological diversity (Morelli, 2011).
For the vast majority of capitalism’s stewardship over international economic systems, corporations have isolated themselves from the concerns of social and environmental sustainability. This is the result of:
- a general lack of understanding about the importance of responsible management of environmental and social resources;
- a capitalistic system that made it unattractive for corporations to extend themselves laterally to address non-economic concerns.
It is only recently that the ideological, economic, and organizational barriers between business and socio-environmental sustainability have begun to dissipate. These circumstances have helped support the integration of sustainable business into economies all around the world. For the purpose of this article, sustainable businesses can be defined as enterprises that place importance not only on economic success, but also societal and environmental responsibility as well. The timing of this corporate evolution could not be more ideal.
The current state of the world resembles a convoluted and ever-evolving mass of economic, social, and environmental interactions — positive and negative. This is not a new state of affairs, however the scale, complexity, and extremity of impacts from mismanaged interactions is. This is largely the result of:
- the increasing human population,
- our continued encroachment into natural areas,
- our exponentially increasing use of natural resources,
- the expansion of positive feedback loops that exacerbate all human-natural system interactions (e.g. climate change).
As governments, civil agencies, and businesses continue onwards in their efforts to benefit from (or control) economic globalization, their ability to conquer new economic, social, and environmental challenges will depend on their ability to collectively understand interconnected global systems, and apply widespread, equitable solutions.
It is my thesis that businesses are uniquely positioned to lead global efforts towards greater social and environmental sustainability.
The Interconnectivity of Global Systems
In order to understand and solve sustainability issues, one has to think intersectionally and view problems and solutions as webs of interrelated components. Every action has a reaction, and every system exists in balance with others. It is simply how the earth operates.
So why does this matter when discussing sustainability and business? Well, it’s important because businesses don’t operate alone in a vacuum. Long gone are the days where global components can be analyzed in separate silos. Like it or not, businesses are only one piece of a grand puzzle.
The interconnectedness of the earth’s natural and anthropogenic (i.e. human-made) systems means that for every problem created, a multitude of incidental reactions occur that generate additional complexities. This is important to note because:
- It emphasizes the level of collectiveness required by humanity in order to avoid detrimental downstream impacts on the marginalized,
- solutions need to be designed and implemented with linkages and temporality (i.e. realistic time-scales) in mind.
The most publicized example of an interconnected global system is climate change. Once it was discovered (and somewhat acknowledged) that green-house gases in the atmosphere were resulting in changing climates, we became confronted with the reality of some large-scale concerns which now include: rising sea levels, desertification, degrading air quality, drought, warming ocean temperatures, changing oceanic currents, increasing ocean acidity, melting glaciers, and more.
These climate-induced issues have produced a multitude of ‘downstream’ effects including land loss, threatened food and water security, biodiversity loss, altered hydrological systems, diminishing polar albedo, and the increasing prevalence of natural disasters. The well understood scientific links between these phenomena makes climate change a great case study for understanding interconnectivity and the scale at which it exists.
Drawing attention to climate change is important for one other reason. It has provided the world with a glimpse into our ability to mobilize across sectors and nations to address a global challenge. While many may argue that our reactions until now have left much to be desired, I and other optimists believe that for the circumstances at play, the world has positioned itself in a manner that still provides us with viable avenues to avoid egregious environmental and societal catastrophes.
The most fascinating part about this? The private-sector (relative to its socio-economic influence) has been extremely limited regarding its overall impact on how the world has pivoted to address socio-environmental sustainability concerns. As private-sector involvement continues to grow, in support of existing sustainability efforts and initiatives, our global adaptability and capacity to avoid socio-environmental calamity improves drastically. The questions are how will corporate involvement be guided, remain equitable, and who are its leaders?
The Private Sector… Sustainability’s new and unforeseen champion?
New? Hopefully. Unforeseen? Depends who you ask.
While scientific institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and some nation states have thus-far led efforts to support and implement sustainability initiatives, none are positioned more effectively than the private-sector to take on the leadership and implementation gaps required for enhanced global sustainability performance. While certain concerns and complexities do surround the increased involvement of corporations in global sustainability, the potential scale of financial, societal, and environmental impacts resulting from increased business leadership is astounding.
What does this business-led sustainability crusade look like? You’ll have to read on in Part II of Sustainability & Business to find out!
Thank you for reading.
Morelli, John. (2011). Environmental Sustainability: A definition for environmental professionals. Journal of Environmental Sustainability, 1(1).
Miguel Santos is the founder of a new social enterprise called the Cordillera Institute. It’s mission? Transform the private sector into the world’s most sustainable stakeholder and its largest impact generator.