What is a Sustainable Business?

May 9, 2012

An audience member at the recent GreenForAll conference in Nashville asked our panel this question.  None of the other three panelists volunteered, so I took the microphone. 

 

"That is a hard question to answer in a sentence." I responded.  But continued...

 

I look to science-based organizations for guidance on what is truly sustainable. Leading organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Global Footprint Network (GFN) reckon that we need to cut our global consumption of the earth's resources substantially -- 33 to 80% based on the resource and the underlying footprint to bring the resource to market. 

 

However, many companies we see waving a green flag promoting sustainability are setting natural resource reduction goals of 10%, 5%, and in some cases -- remaining constant, i.e. no gains in resource use. This is  green marketing (I say this is green marketing because the word green is nebulous.  It could mean anything (and therefore most often means little) and is not sustainability.  Remaining the same or reduction by 5% is not going to get us to the 80% reduction (below 1990 levels) of greenhouse gas emissions that the IPCC says we need to reach by 2050.  This is not going to get us back down from the 1.5 Earths (that we currently need to meet our global demand) to one Earth, according the GFN.  

 

Sustainability, the word, has meaning. 

Think: what the sun grows in one year must equal or outweigh what humans consume in one year.  An example can help.  You own an island.  On that island you are surrounded by fresh water and you only need apple trees to live.  You have 1,000 apple trees.  This year, you cut down and use 150 apple trees.  This year, and every year, one hundred apple trees grow back.  At the end of the year, is every OK?  Sure it is...for the moment.  You have apple trees as far as you can see on your island.  But, in fact, you lost net 50 trees. You are down to 950.  This scenario repeats itself for years.  At some point, you realize that you no longer have apple trees as far as you can see.  In other words, your "free-fall" is now approaching the ground.  Gravity is real.  What do you do?  Reduce your consumption of apple trees by 5%?  10%?  Neither is going to remedy the situation.  You need to at least reduce by 33% to start moving in a net positive direction.  That would be a sustainable move.  If you were a company, you could honestly say you were operating sustainably that year. 

What you would really need to be doing is to stop thinking "green" (incremental moves) and stop thinking "sustainability as simply replenishment" and start thinking "restorative". The only way to truly mitigate your risk and rebuild your supply is to use less than the sun can grow in a year.  If you reduce your consumption by 50% (from 150 trees to 75 trees) you start operating with an annual 25 tree surplus.  Do that for several years and you now have wings and are flying upward instead of falling like a heavy stone towards the ground.

 

In other words, "sustainability" (setting "replenishment" as the goal, i.e. a ceiling), as it is most often utilized, is not sustainable.  Setting sustainability as the minimum goal, or a "floor", is a better option.

The only truly sustainable companies are the ones that are thinking and doing "restorative".

 

So, I take it back. You can answer the question in one sentence.

 

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