Define “Sustainable”

“Sustainable business” evolved from a broader concept called “sustainable development,” defined by the Brundtland Commission (a sub-organization of the United Nations) as follows:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission, 1987).

Central to this definition is the principle of intergenerational equity, which raises a fundamental question: what do we owe the future? “Relative to everyone who could come after us, we are a tiny minority,” says Prof William MacAskill, author of What We Owe the Future. “Yet we hold the entire future in our hands. Everyday ethics rarely grapples with such a scale. We need to build a moral worldview that takes seriously what’s at stake.”

What is a sustainable business?

According to Sustainable Brands, a sustainable business…

1. Has a clearly defined, articulated, embedded, and fully activated social and/or environmental purpose beyond producing profit;

– AND –

2. Demonstrates integrity, fairness, transparency and genuine leadership for sustainability, as well as the absence of any conflicts or misalignment between governance and sustainability priorities;

– AND –

3. Operates in ways that support the health, resilience and flourishing of society and the environment, does no harm in any way to either society or the environment throughout the whole value chain, and acts to create conditions essential to overall systemic health, resilience and flourishing;

– AND –

4. Delivers products and/or services with net-positive environmental, social and economic outcomes across the whole life cycle, including end-of-life;

– AND –

5. Consistently leverages the power of brand influence to encourage its stakeholders to make changes necessary for a collective transition toward a more sustainable global economy.

However, the business response to the “sustainability challenge” is incredibly diverse. At one end of the spectrum, we have companies like Patagonia, among the most admired brands in the US, and Ringana, an Austrian manufacturer of natural cosmetics, which are fully committed to sustainability. At the other end of the spectrum, we have businesses that consistently place profit above the public interest in ways that harm human and planetary health, even as they claim otherwise. According to research published in The Lancet, this is an entrenched social, economic and political problem that will only be solved through the concerted action of multiple stakeholders (see graphic below).

It is important that students understand the ever-evolving definitions of sustainability. Therefore, we have embarked on a wide-ranging review.

© 2022 Institute for Business, Sustainability & Society