Sustainable development: a business definition
The concept of sustainable development has received growing recognition, but it is a new idea for many business executives. For most, the concept remains abstract and theoretical.
Protecting an organization’s capital base is a well-accepted business principle. Yet
organizations do not generally recognize the possibility of extending this notion to the world’s natural and human resources.
If sustainable development is to achieve its potential, it must be integrated into the
planning and measurement systems of business enterprises. And for that to happen, the concept must be articulated in terms that are familiar to business leaders.
The following definition is suggested:
For the business enterprise, sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future.
This definition captures the spirit of the concept as originally proposed by the World
Commission on Environment and Development, and recognizes that economic
development must meet the needs of a business enterprise and its stakeholders. The latter include shareholders, lenders, customers, employees, suppliers and communities who are affected by the organization’s activities.
It also highlights business’s dependence on human and natural resources, in addition to physical and financial capital. It emphasizes that economic activity must not irreparably degrade or destroy these natural and human resources.
This definition is intended to help business directors apply the concept of sustainable
development to their own organizations. However, it is important to emphasize that
sustainable development cannot be achieved by a single enterprise (or, for that matter, by the entire business community) in isolation. Sustainable development is a pervasive philosophy to which every participant in the global economy (including consumers and government) must subscribe, if we are to meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.
Implications for business
It has become a cliché that environmental problems are substantial, and that economic growth contributes to them. A common response is stricter environmental regulation, which often inhibits growth. The result can be a trade-off between a healthy environment on the one hand and healthy growth on the other. As a consequence, opportunities for business may be constrained.
However, there are some forms of development that are both environmentally and
socially sustainable. They lead not to a trade-off but to an improved environment,
together with development that does not draw down our environmental capital. This is what sustainable development is all about - a revolutionary change in the way we approach these issues.
Businesses and societies can find approaches that will move towards all three goals -
environmental protection, social wellbeing and economic development - at the same time.
Sustainable development is good business in itself. It creates opportunities for suppliers of ‘green consumers’, developers of environmentally safer materials and processes, firms that invest in eco-efficiency, and those that engage themselves in social well-being. These enterprises will generally have a competitive advantage. They will earn their local community’s goodwill and see their efforts reflected in the bottom line.
While business traditionally seeks precision and practicality as the basis for its planning efforts, sustainable development is a concept that is not amenable to simple and universal definition. It is fluid, and changes over time in response to increased information and society’s evolving priorities.
The role of business in contributing to sustainable development remains indefinite. While all business enterprises can make a contribution towards its attainment, the ability to make a difference varies by sector and organization size.
Some executives consider the principal objective of business to be making money. Others recognize a broader social role. There is no consensus among business leaders as to the best balance between narrow self-interest and actions taken for the good of society. Companies continually face the need to trade off what they would ‘like’ to do and what they ‘must’ do in pursuit of financial survival.
Businesses also face trade-offs when dealing with the transition to sustainable practices. For example, a chemical company whose plant has excessive effluent discharges might decide to replace it with a more effective treatment facility. But should the company close the existing plant during the two or three-year construction period and risk losing market share? Or should it continue to operate the polluting plant despite the cost of fines and adverse public relations? Which is the better course of action in terms of economy, social wellbeing and the environment?
Moreover, many areas of sustainable development remain technically ambiguous, making it difficult to plan an effective course of action. For example, the forestry industry has had difficulty defining what constitutes sustainable forest management. Some critics believe that simply replacing trees is not enough, because harvesting destroys the biodiversity of the forest. Clearly, more research will be needed to resolve such technical issues.
From a broader perspective, however, it is clearly in the interest of business to operate within a healthy environment and economy. It is equally plain that, on a global basis, growing and sustainable economies in the developing countries will provide the best opportunities for expanding markets.
To some, sustainable development and environmental stewardship are synonymous. In the short term, sound environmental performance is probably a reasonable objective for most businesses, with sustainable development as a longer term goal. However, this can lead to confusion. In the developed world, the focus is on environmental management, while in developing countries, rapid and sustainable development is paramount.
The global economy is coming under growing pressure to pay for the restoration of damaged environments. But this economic engine is being asked to help solve other pressing problems at the same time. The challenge is to solve all of these problems in a sustainable manner, so as to generate continuing development.
Despite ambiguities about definitions, there is now widespread support for sustainable development principles within the business community. However, for that support to grow, it will be important to recognize and reward initiatives that are being taken to turn the concept into reality.
Positive signs of change
William Mulligan, environmental affairs manager at Chevron Corporation, reflects the view of many in the business community who believe that the environment is now a major issue - one which presents both challenges and opportunities.
‘Over the last decade, we have seen many polls confirming the importance of the
environment to Americans,’ he says. ‘Only an irresponsible company would dismiss this trend as a passing fad or fail to recognize the need to integrate environmental considerations into every aspect of its business. Environmental excellence has to become part of strategic thinking. It is in our best economic interests to do so. In fact, whenever we are forced to change, we often find opportunities.’
This positive change in attitudes and practices is echoed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which says: ‘There is now a realistic prospect of harmonizing environmental and economic considerations, and thus of gradually incorporating these objectives in policy.’
Many executives have demonstrated that pursuing sustainable development strategies
makes good business sense. For example, a 3M manufacturing plant scaled down a
wastewater treatment operation by half, simply by running cooling water through its
factories repeatedly instead of discharging it after a single use. Meanwhile Dow’s ‘Waste Reduction Always Pays’ programme, which began in 1986, has fostered more than 700 projects, and saved millions of dollars a year. And in a Westinghouse metal finishing factory in Puerto Rico, the company reduced ‘dragout’ - the contamination accidentally carried from one tank to another - by 75% simply by shaking the tank to remove solids before releasing the chemical to the next tank.
Pacific Gas and Electric decided that energy conservation was a more profitable
investment than nuclear power, and McDonald’s made its well-publicized move from plastics to paper the cornerstone of a much broader, but less visible, waste reduction strategy.
The managers of these businesses clearly believe that environmentalism has something to offer business.
In an interview with Tomorrow magazine, John Elkington of environmental consultancy SustainAbility says: ‘We are seeing the birth of corporate environmentalism. In fact the main impetus for sustainable development in the future will probably come from business.’
There are other significant developments too, Elkington points out. Many consumers are now prepared to pay more for environmentally responsible products. And the emergence of ethical investment funds has thrown the spotlight onto corporate environmental performance.
Also significant, says Elkington, is that companies are changing from within, rather than simply responding to external pressure from consumers and environmentalists.
Sources and References
Tomorrow Magazine 67th edition, issue #6.
Business today magazine, page 13 and 16.
Pixabay open source image library.