Sustainability is the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources for the future.
The United Nations defined sustainable development in the Brundtland Report as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It assumes that resources are finite, and so should be used conservatively and carefully to ensure that there is enough for future generations, without decreasing present quality of life. A sustainable society must be socially responsible, focussing on environmental protection and dynamic equilibrium in human and natural systems.
There are many benefits to sustainability, both short-term and long-term. We cannot maintain our Earth’s ecosystems or continue to function as we do if more sustainable choices are not made. If harmful processes are maintained with no change, it is likely that we will run out of fossil fuels, huge numbers of animal species will become extinct, and the atmosphere will be irreparably damaged. Clean air and nontoxic atmospheric conditions, growth of resources that can be relied upon, and water quality and cleanliness, are all benefits of sustainability.
The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: environmental, social and economic—also known informally as profits, planet, and people. These are in particular relevant to corporate sustainability, and efforts made by companies.
- Environmental protection is the most frequently discussed element. It is concerned with the reduction of carbon footprints, water usage, non-decomposable packaging, and wasteful processes as part of a supply chain. These processes can often be cost-effective, and financially useful as well as important for environmental sustainability.
- Social development is about treating employees fairly and ensuring responsible, ethical, and sustainable treatment of employees, stakeholders, and the community in which a business operates. This may be achieved through more responsive benefits, like better maternity and paternity benefits, flexible scheduling, and learning and development opportunities. For example, business should operate using sustainable labour, which involves fairly-paid, adult employees who can operate in a safe environment.
- Economic development is probably the simplest form of sustainability. To be economically sustainable, a business must be profitable and produce enough revenues to be continued into the future. The challenge with this form of sustainability is achieving an equilibrium. Rather than making money at any cost, companies should attempt to generate profit in accordance with other elements of sustainability.
Focussing on social and environmental sustainability in addition to economic performance is an approach frequently referred to as the Triple Bottom Line.
Recently, the UN issued The Sustainable Development Goals as its main aims for the successful achievement of a better and more sustainable future. They address global challenges to sustainability. The 17 Goals include sustainable economic growth, no poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and responsible consumption and production, and it is hoped that they will be reached by 2030.
Sustainability is measured by assessing performance of the three main principles altogether, in particular a balanced treatment of all three. These three key principles of the Triple Bottom Line do not provide a measurement system of themselves, but recent methods of measuring sustainability have attempted to measure sustainability through them. Though no official universal measurement of sustainability exists, many organisations are developing industry-specific tools and practices to judge how social, environmental and economic principles function as part of a company.
The Triple Bottom Line approach to operating a company is useful for businesses in a number of ways. Not only is it ethical and important to meet UN standards of environmental sustainability, it is also economical and allows a stronger business model. Additionally, sustainability enables an organisation to attract employees, shareholders and customers who are invested in the goals of sustainability and share these values. The impact of sustainability can therefore be positive for a business’ image as well as revenue.
In 2018, the EU Commission released six key transformations to be made. If properly implemented, these steps will allow better sustainability to be achieved by the current goal of 2050.
- Sustainable development is a societal challenge, not simply an environmental one - improvements of education and healthcare are therefore required to achieve higher income and better environmental decisions
- Responsible consumption and production, and the importance of doing more with fewer resources, are important to adopt a circular economy and reduce demand
- Decarbonisation of the energy industry, through clean energy resources and renewable processes, will be necessary to provide clean and affordable energy for all
- There should be food and clean water for all while protecting the biosphere and the oceans, which will require efficient and sustainable food systems, achievable through the increasing of agricultural productivity and reduction of meat consumption
- Smart cities: Settlement patterns should be transformed for the good of the population and the environment, which may be done through ‘smart’ infrastructure and internet connectivity
- A digital revolution in science, technology, and innovation would be required to support sustainable development, as it is hoped that the world will use the development of Information Technology to facilitate sustainability
With the climate crisis, there is a current movement towards sustainability as a more appealing priority for businesses, as people begin to live more sustainable lives. It is likely that, in the future, positive impact on climate over the whole value chain, improved impact on the environment, people, and atmosphere, and productive input on society, will be expectations for businesses. Companies will be held accountable for all aspects of industry, and any environmental damage or harmful emissions should be limited or removed from productive processes.
It is also expected that resources will be reused to suit the global increase in population in what is commonly referred to as a ‘circular economy’. This change would allow one person’s waste to be another’s resource, in a process that would greatly reduce waste and create a more efficient supply chain.
What is the definition of sustainability?
Sustainability refers to the ability to meet the current needs of society without compromising the future. In 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Why is sustainability important in today’s world?
Sustainability has benefits for the entire world with reductions in carbon footprints and the amount of toxins and pollutants released into the environment. As we see the effects of climate change taking hold, it is more important than ever to seek sustainable solutions, not only to create a cleaner and healthier world, but also to potentially prevent catastrophic changes to the environment in the future.
What are some examples of sustainable practices?
There are a range of sustainable practices that we can employ either as individuals or as businesses. Common, everyday practices that we can all employ include recycling, not wasting food or resources, using eco-friendly household cleaning products, and sharing and donating items.
Businesses can also have a massive impact on sustainability through their business practices, including:
- Renewable Energy Use: Using renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro or solar power is an easy way to reduce your environmental impact. Choosing the right resource for your business can also save you money on operating costs as, once installed, your energy needs can be met in-house, with little maintenance required.
- Creating Environmentally Friendly Products: Avoid using harmful chemicals or materials, making energy-efficient items, avoiding single-use items, making items that can be repaired, and sourcing parts locally are all important ways that businesses can be more sustainable.
- Recycling and Waste Reduction: Recycling is an easy way for businesses to be more sustainable and reduce waste. Other sustainable practices include reusing items rather than disposing of them where possible.
- Using Sustainable Packaging: Sustainable packaging includes that which is recycled or reused for other purposes. It is better to use reusable storage options (glass jars, for example) where possible and also to use biodegradable packaging materials so consumers can easily dispose of them after use.
- Fleet Conversion: Using electric or hybrid vehicles will greatly reduce your carbon footprint, while also reducing emissions, improving air quality, and battling climate change. These vehicles could also save you money through fuel costs and maintenance as well as attracting eco-conscious consumers to your brand.
- Composting: Composting helps reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, while also creating nutrient-rich fertiliser from organic waste.
- Ethical Sourcing: This business practice involves checking where products and parts are sourced from. By only placing orders with ethical companies that protect the environment and respect human and workers’ rights, you can improve both environmental and social sustainability.
- Sustainable Supply Chain Management: This involves assessing every aspect of your business for sustainability to reduce waste, improve efficiencies, lower pollution, and improve labour conditions. This will cover everything from your manufacturing materials, transport and disposal.
- Employee Care: A healthy business requires valued and engaged employees. Taking care of your employees helps achieve social and human sustainability for your business with a workforce who feel important and will wish to stay and keep growing with you.
- Corporate Social Responsibility: This involves creating programmes that reach out into the local community and wider society to promote equality and inclusion, foster corporate citizenship, give back financially or through volunteering to help disadvantaged people.
How do businesses benefit from implementing sustainability practices?
Sustainability practices have environmental, economic and social benefits for society as a whole. Everyone benefits from these practices by making the environment cleaner and protecting future generations. These benefits include those for health with a reduction in pollution and for the climate by not harming the environment.
These general benefits are reason enough for businesses to act sustainably, but there are also additional benefits for companies, including lower energy and operating costs through the use of renewable energy, recycling and waste reduction. These companies also create better customer loyalty, especially as consumers demand environmentally and socially responsible business practices.
What are some easy ways to incorporate sustainability into everyday life?
You can bring sustainability into your own life by being a ‘conscious consumer.’ Looking at the sustainability practices of the businesses you buy from and demanding better practices is a direct way to bring sustainability into your life.
However, there are other things you can do too, such as not using plastic bags for your shopping, going paperless with your documents, avoiding single-use items, using eco-friendly cleaning products, reducing food waste, and sharing items with your neighbours, as well as reusing, recycling and donating unwanted items.
These are just some of the practical and easy ways you can bring more sustainability into your life.
What is the role of sustainability in economic growth?
Economic growth is not truly possible in the long term without sustainability. Of course, it is possible to ignore environmental and sustainability issues but this will only lead to short-term gains. An economy that exists alongside the natural resources we require for many goods and services creates a stronger long-term economic and social model. This includes looking after water, waste, energy and food.
How does sustainability impact our health and well-being?
Our mental and physical health is intrinsically tied to our surrounding natural and built environments. Promoting sustainability helps create the better environments in which we can thrive, while also conserving resources for future generations, so social justice and a high quality of life can be enjoyed by people in the future.
Can a business be profitable and still be sustainable?
Evidence shows that sustainability equals higher levels of profitability. An April 2023 report from Bain & Company and EcoVadis investigated 10,000 companies across a range of countries and sectors, finding that, in most cases, those working to improve their societal and environmental impact recorded growth in revenue and earnings. The report also reported that there was “no strong negative correlation” for those working more sustainably.
In addition, those companies with good sustainability tend to have fairer pay and safer working environments, with a happier workforce too. This workforce is likely to be more efficient and satisfied at work as a result, leading to increased loyalty among employees and less risk of losing talent to rival businesses. Sustainability also equals renewable energy use and improved energy efficiencies, which can reduce costs.
Sustainability is not just a matter of ‘doing the right thing’ for society but can also lead to greater profits, lower costs, improved employee satisfaction and loyalty, and positive brand association among your customer base too.
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