Sustainability “is like exploration into a tangle conceptual jungle where watchful eyes lurk at every bend ”.
The obvious thing pops into my mind when trying to answer this question is the need to address the meaning of the word sustainable. While that requires much more than short blog post, I don’t think I can go on to discuss whether there is such a thing as a sustainable business without, at least, touching upon what sustainability means in the first place. There are so many definitions of sustainability but perhaps one that is appropriate in this case is the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s definition which says that a sustainable business is one that “adopts 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”. We can also talk about sustainability as the relationality of various components in society – the triple bottom line dimensions. Or we can talk about sustainability as being about a “safe, secure, healthy and equitable world for 9 billion in 2050” (John Elkington). What’s clear is that sustainability is a contested concept, and one which is often defined with more contested concepts. Following on from this, I think it’s best to agree that the practical implementation of a sustainability definition will vary across industries, geographies, and cultures (etc.) “because at its core sustainability is an underlying approach rather than a definitive list of activities” (The Economist). Based on this, what does a sustainable business look like?
There are many ways to answer this question, looking at different types of businesses or different theories; I’ve merely selected a few.
A sustainable business copies nature.
This is based on the idea that a sustainable business should learn from the natural world because so many organisms have already solved the problems we are trying to tackle (for more on this, I recommend watching Janine Benyus’ Ted talk). A business inspiring itself on nature would thus do things that nature does…. It would only use renewable energy; it would not waste energy or other resources (reusing and recycling everything); it would curb excess and would adapt to local conditions. Last but not least, it would see itself as part of a wider ecosystem and understand that it is not isolated.
A sustainable business is part of a sustainable system.
This last point echoes that of industrial ecology, where a business is a studied as part of a wider system and where linkages between components of the system are studied to understand how to best make use of them. It also mirrors the concept of cradle-to-cradle design where the entire lifecycle of a product, service or business is taken into consideration from the onset with the goal of minimizing waste, and maximizing efficiency. One such example (which for reason or another seems to be stuck in my head) is “from carboard to caviar” which uses cradle-to-cradle design to produce caviar. The idea that a business can only be sustainable if it is part of a wider sustainable system seems obvious. Businesses do not act in isolation and constantly interact with other parts of society. It thus follows on from that a sustainable business is one that works in collaboration with other parts (suppliers, society, consumers, etc.) to maintain the system’s sustainability.
A sustainable business is innovative.
Because systems are dynamic with ever-evolving relationships, a sustainable business is also one that constantly adapts through a reiterative process to ensure it meets the system’s (and/or society’s) needs.
There are many other aspects to consider in this question. For example, the idea of a sustainable business being one that serves the needs of society as described in Porter and Kramer’s shared value paper. Or that a sustainable business is one that adopts a long term vision (underpinned by the definition of sustainability where the needs of future generations are not compromised by current practices). The question of whether a sustainable business should aim to make profit can also be posed. To this, I like to refer to Peter Drucker who said that “profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don’t have it, you’re out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing you’re really missing something.” From this standpoint, a business should aim to make a profit to ensure it is financially sustainable, but this does not necessarily entail profit maximization without a further purpose.
So is there such a thing as a sustainable business? Today, I’d be inclined to answer no because there are so many things wrong with the system overall, and as I discussed above, a business is only as sustainable as its system. More importantly, I’d be even more inclined to say does it really matter? Probably not. Maybe we should just keep it simple: do well by doing good, and get on with it.