“Sustainability” is a BIG word. Ask 100 people what the definition is and you will get 100 different answers. Google the question and you will get so many more answers. It was first formally defined in 1987 by the United Nations Brundtland Commission as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Depending on the sector, sustainability means something different whether the context is environmental science, global development, social impact, finance and investing, higher education, industrial manufacturing, retail, etc.. Understanding sustainability, from the language to the process of creating a strategy, takes time, can be a bit overwhelming and even cause confusion on its purpose. There is no one definition nor is there one perfect approach, particularly in the business context. Every company may define it differently and that is okay as long as you are focused on making a positive impact. 

We encourage every company to define sustainability for themselves. Ask questions about the purpose of sustainability. For what reasons is the company pursuing it? How does it fit into your culture? What might you need to change about your culture/operations/strategy to integrate sustainability? You may look to an industry group that is advocating for sustainability, which may offer a definition or focus areas. Working through the process of defining it is a good place to start for any company. 

At Venture Forward Strategies, we define sustainability as positive impacts on people and the environment that contribute to a flourishing planet. It is the ability to live and flourish in the closed loop system of the world with limited resources. We consider both environmental and social sustainability in our work. 

Other companies may offer inspiration to you:

  • Cascade Engineering embodies a “Triple Bottom Line” culture by focusing on people, planet, and profit to return positive benefits for all stakeholders; 
  • Interface has achieved its Mission Zero commitment, in part by becoming the first global flooring manufacturer to sell all products as carbon neutral across their full life cycle;
  • HermanMiller is a steward of the environment, advances cradle-to-cradle design, and manages resources responsibly to preserve Earth’s resources. 
  • Ben & Jerry’s integrated sustainability and values in this statement: We love making ice cream—but using our business to make the world a better place gives our work its meaning. Guided by our Core Values, we seek in all we do, at every level of our business, to advance human rights and dignity, support social and economic justice for historically marginalized communities, and protect and restore the Earth’s natural systems. In other words: we use ice cream to change the world.

Once you define “sustainability” for your company, you can better steer your strategies and get everyone moving in the same direction. It will provide a guidepost for the work and a starting point to develop a broader vision for your company’s impact. Defining may give clarity on social climate risks and, at the same time, reveal opportunities to create positive change to the environmental, social, and financial bottom lines. A definition will also provide a framework to set targets and goals. The process will allow a company to reaffirm its values and engage employees. Everyone in the company can form an understanding of the work and see how their role fits into it. You can start to nurture champions throughout the company to support sustainability work. 

If your company is already working on sustainability, can you define it? If not, consider coming up with a definition on which your work can be centered. Provide a clear understanding to everyone else in the company. Giving meaning to something gives it power. 

Need help getting started? Venture Forward Strategies is here to support you and your company on your sustainability journey.

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