A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Business

A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Business

Interested in sustainable business, but have no idea where to begin?  Let’s start by defining sustainability.  The most commonly used definition for sustainability is from the 1987 Brundtland Commission who defined ‘sustainable development’ as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.”  The idea of ensuring that future generations will be able to ‘meet their own needs’ is crucial because it would be short-sighted and selfish to only safeguard one’s own generation’s ability to meet its needs.

This line of thinking is not new, however.  The Native American tribe, the Iroquois, had adopted the seventh generation principle long before it was ever a cleaning product.  The 7th Generation principle states that before making decisions today, consider what their impact will be seven generations later.  A sustainable business realizes it has a responsibility to future generations so they, too, can prosper and have opportunities to succeed.

All businesses have to have a healthy economic bottom line in order to exist, and that also is true for sustainable businesses. However, businesses that identify themselves as sustainable also believe it is necessary to have a healthy environmental and social bottom line.

The combination of healthy economic, environmental and social bottom lines is called the triple bottom line. Many businesses, such as Patagonia, Nike and many others have begun using the triple bottom line approach and have found their economic bottom line has been enhanced due to measuring the impact their business has on the environment and society.

Most businesses don’t have the foresight to look beyond the next quarter, but those that do have realized they probably will not be able to continue to operate their business the same way they do today as they will in 20, 50 or 100 years.

So, a sustainable business takes a triple bottom line approach, realizes it has a responsibility to future generations and looks beyond the next quarter.

But what else?

A sustainable business has chosen to examine whether their product or service is harmful to the environment and society. A sustainable business recognizes it should strive to reduce any harm it does to the environment and society because there is no business to be made on a planet without any natural resources.

A sustainable business sees improving its environmental performance as a way to increase competitive advantage, drive innovation and reduce operational costs.

A sustainable business is aware that worldwide population will reach 9 billion by 2050 and that there will be a strain on natural resources, so it should begin to conserve energy, water and minimize the amount of waste it generates.

A sustainable business realizes climate change is real and believes it can do its part to mitigate the impact its business has on climate change. A sustainable business calculates and tracks its greenhouse gas emissions. A sustainable business recycles and conserves water.

A sustainable business realizes it has a responsibility to pay its workers a fair wage. A sustainable business ensures that its products were not produced in a factory that uses child and slave labor to manufacture its products.

A sustainable business donates time and money to non-profits that help further their own mission.

These are but a few things practiced by businesses that are responsible and, therefore, sustainable.

There’s no need to over-complicate sustainable business. With an ever increasing demand for natural resources due to population growth and threats from climate change, the businesses that choose to act responsibly and address the aforementioned issues are the ones that will not only survive but thrive in the 21st Century.

Some of this article was updated and was originally published in The Savannah Morning News.

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