A meaningful question
In 2021, Google searches phrased ‘what is sustainability’ reached an all-time peak. Unsurprising perhaps. It’s certainly not a ‘look to the definition and get a simple answer’ situation.
The Oxford English Dictionary modified its online definition of the noun in June 2021 and the most recent definition reads:
- The quality of being sustainable by argument; the capacity to be upheld or defended as valid, correct, or true.
2a. The quality of being sustainable at a certain rate or level.
2b. The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.
The meaning of 2b cements that ‘sustainability’ in its most popular usage is primarily aligned with environmental goals.
The spree of recent Google searches phrased ‘what is sustainability’, doesn’t just show a growing public interest, but it also betrays how muddied the waters are.
Sustainability is a term that is somehow both too specific and too broad.
This school of thought is so large that answers to the question ‘what is sustainability?’ could include ‘saving the planet’, ‘net zero’ or ‘recycling’, depending on the scope and perspective of the individual answering.
This leaves ‘sustainability’ looking more like a personal point of view rather than a definable term to actionably integrate into our lives and businesses.
This subjective, purely environmental association with the word leaves vitally important interconnected sustainability issues neglected in the conversation.
Connections make meaning
The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals is a ‘blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.’ and in it, ‘Climate Action, defined as taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’, is one of the 17 goals.
This reintegrates the environmental definition of sustainability into the true meaning of sustainability as a whole, giving it deserved weight as an incredibly important and time-sensitive goal, but no more vital than No Poverty, Zero Hunger and the 14 other goals.
No action taken is ever in isolation. Every action we take creates a reaction that may be either direct or indirect, or more often both.
And, unless we are fully conscious of sustainability in its broadest sense, we are always at risk of creating negative reactions that we are not even aware of.
Negative reactions could affect those closest to us, or people in a different part of the world we will never meet or know.
It is possibly in our nature to protect those immediate to us, but increased globalisation, facilitated by the internet, means that the ‘far-away’ human consequences of our actions can stare us in the face in photos, videos, articles etc unlike ever before.
Embracing a holistic definition of sustainability recognises that prosperity should take the planet and people into account.
Prosperity will only endure if sustainability encompasses global needs across social, economic, and environmental systems.
Where do I begin with true sustainability?
Due to how huge and diverse the world is, we should look to our local context initially.
Most individuals want to sustain a quality of life that is good for us, for our families, our local communities, for now, and for future generations.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the most honourable way to ensure that is possible, is to embed personal, social, and business responsibility into our choices, creations, and actions.
It is not possible for a suffering planetary population to enable environmental flourishing, nor for human flourishing to persist on a suffering planet.
This impending problem should not immobilize us because there is so much potential in this mindset shift. Turbulent times can often drive disruptive, innovative change and unlock exciting new sources of value and meaning.
Getting to the scenario where people and the planet thrive, requires re-shaping the consumer-driven lifestyles we lead now, but it can still be a beautiful future.
Investing your efforts into a more sustainable approach is investing in the long-term instead of temporary, fleeting satisfaction.
It is possible to see sustainability as a realisation of justice instead of a sacrifice.
It is already clear that while our society consumes more than ever, we are beginning to rediscover the value in values in a market saturated with rapidly cycling trends and deception, fakery etc found everywhere.
So, what does true sustainability mean in a business context?
The true meaning of sustainability for your business
Let’s presume that your starting point is sustaining your business and ensuring its profitability. If you are driven by more altruistic ideals, that’s perfect, but in either case, the following statement should never be forgotten:
“Responsible businesses will be the most sustainable and profitable for the longer term”
A short-sighted, self-protective business will likely overlook opportunities to build long-term value.
This leaves said business vulnerable to disruptions and unattractive to investors. It can also make it harder to recruit and retain staff.
A resilient business model embeds responsibility internally and externally.
But what is meant by responsible business?
The Organisation for Responsible Businesses (ORB) launched in 2010 with a “mission to change the world, one small business at a time.”
It defines a responsible business as one that:
“Operates ethically and efficiently; meets and exceeds legislations; and always considers its impact on people (workforce, community and wider society) and the environment.”
Just as we spoke about a broad-based approach to true sustainability, so ORB takes a broad-based approach to responsible business.
In fact, responsible business and sustainable business could almost be synonymous.
We have anticipated the unique position of navigating such an expansive concept (responsibility/sustainability) and have developed resources free of jargon with flexible ways of analysing your business without strict numerical measurements.
Narrow sets of targets limit the potential of businesses to adapt creatively, and they are often unsuitable depending on the type, scale, and proportional impact of your business.
We believe that SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are not only the powerhouse of the British economy but they also, collectively, have the power to make a real difference to our societies at local, national, and even international levels.
They are part of society, not an adjunct.
Compartmentalizing business and society distances us from the reality that SMEs can circularly contribute positives.
At its heart, ORB is a membership organisation for businesses that want to proactively demonstrate they are committed to a better way of doing business: a way that is good for business AND a better world.
By applying for and being accepted for ORB membership, you will be joining a growing number of businesses that want to shout louder about a better way of doing business.
You will be helping to drive the responsible business movement.
Advancing your business’ sustainability
If you are looking for a more robust certification, why not consider the Responsible Business Standard certification options, which begin with an online course?
Anyone working through the course will benefit from the extensive information provided, wrapped up in a stripped-back approach that necessities a soul-searching process to identify if an organisation is operating ethically and responsibly and genuinely making a positive contribution to society.
The definition of sustainability is a working definition and joining the responsible business movement with ORB can help to redefine the term to its true meaning.
When we include businesses as part of maintainable living systems, we show willingness to put sustainability into widespread practice, not just words.