How might we understand ‘sustainability’ in a business?

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This blog is copy of my response to an article on a closed intranet. But I hope it stands alone as some thinking in answer to the question “how might we understand ‘sustainability’ in a business?”

Thanks for this great article summarising 2012. As I read it though, I was wondering about what was not included. There is very little about what is happening in Australia. Are you able to add any Ozzie references at all please?

I also wonder about some of the questions we might ask ourselves now (given the question has a huge impact upon the answer).

I wonder if questions like “can we standardise sustainability” might be transformed into “how might we even begin to gain a common and shared understadning of what ‘sustainability’ is”?

Is it a series of actions designed to reduce (but not eliminate) environmental harm, CSR (where we do some good along the way)… or is it a different way of seeing and being in the world that recognises the interconnections between things and nurtures environmental and social ‘systems’ in which the business/organisation is embedded as the main focus of the business?

Dexter Dunphy talks about a paradigm shift that challenges the purpose of businesses. And I wonder if the purpose of business to ‘make a profit’ was once an important outcome, but has become an end in itself. So in a ‘sustainable business’ this might be reversed and the purpose to assist and serve our communities (in whatever way the business does – it may be providing fire extinguishers, or it may be providing food) may become dominant again – and profitability may revert to being a necessary condition for continuing to serve the community – not an end in itself.

I watched with interest this morning as the Cancer Council launched an initiative to make a difference to the way soft drinks of marketed. The thinking in the paragraph above would expose businesses such as these as ‘un-sustainable’. Their activity, does not promote healthy living and their product is almost ‘addictive’ in terms of sugar contained in the drink and the physiological impact it has. Producing and marketing such a drink does not nurture the social (think obesity issues) or environmental systems (I think I read it takes about 6 parts water to make 1 part soft drink) in which it is embedded.

I don’t think that this conversation has been had yet and I dont think the term ‘sustainability’ has been clarified yet. Is it a destination – a goal – or an evolving and dynamic way of being? If its the latter, it is a huge ‘adaptive challenge’ that we are still ‘avoiding’.

And with reference to your last question – As Paul Hawken once said, “capitalism, as a way of conserving capital sounds like a good idea – we should try it!! The capitalism we have now wastes capital – social and natural.”