Sustainability is yet another word made virtually meaningless through its adoption and exploitation by big business. However, as a concept, it does have value. Sustainability comes from the Latin word sustinere, meaning “to uphold”. Just as you would uphold your children, your aging parents, the school or church you might attend, we also uphold (or not) the health of our planet through our individual and collective decision-making. Just because a business has been around for 100 years, does not make it sustainable. Just because a government has governed for 300 years does not make it sustainable. Just because a soil can still manage to produce a crop does not mean it is sustainable. To be sustainable, a resource, society, or organization must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission, United Nations 1987). So if your business were meeting your personal financial goals by strip mining a natural resource, that would mean that future generations ability to meet their needs will be eroded and compromised. If your government was spending all of its revenues on quick-fix bandaids while borrowing revenue from future generations, that would not be sustainable. If your farm was drawing down the aquifer underneath it at a faster rate than natural replenishment of that aquifer, that would not be sustainable. If your business made money by pushing its costs out to the public, such as with toxic, unrecyclable packaging that has to be landfilled, then that is not sustainable. As you can see, sustainability is a process and decision-making framework, it is not one thing. It is not a single data point, it is not a “law of science” like gravity or thermodynamics. That doesn’t make it any less valid. If people, governments, and organizations would just use the concept of sustainability as a framework to test all of their decision-making, sort of a vision that they hold all their actions up to, then our world would be in a much better state. I work with businesses and organizations to help them create that vision for themselves and then evaluate their current and future operations against that vision. Then we collectively prioritize to focus on the processes or activities that are in conflict with that sustainability vision, creating a new paradigm for doing business.
For further information on how I create a vision of sustainability, check out The Natural Step.