As 2013 comes rapidly to a close, it is worth noting, I think, that this was arguably the three hundredth anniversary of sustainability management, the formal discipline, as we know it. Indeed, the concept of sustainability management in commerce first appeared in 1713 in a book written by Hans Carl von Carlowitz (Sylvicultura Oeconomica, 1713), a Saxon tax accountant and mining administrator who more or less invented the practice of sustainable forestry.
In the early eighteenth century, the mining industry in Europe was in a state of crisis, not because of any shortages in ore or in mines per se, but because of the scarcity of lumber required for smelting. Whole forests were disappearing through clear cutting, leading to soaring prices, bankruptcies and the collapse of the mining sector in certain areas.
In response, Carlowitz argued that the forestry industry should alter its practices such that the rate of logging does not exceed the rate at which trees grow; and in so doing, he singlehandedly ushered in the principle of sustainability to management, the relevance and importance of which has been growing ever since.
Indeed, Carlowitz’s book not only provided the earliest known use of the word sustainability — or nachhaltigkeit, in German — in the sense in which we use it today, it also constituted the first formulation of what would later become known as the triple bottom line (Elkington, 1997). Edinger and Kaul (2003) put it this way:
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One year before he died, Carlowitz published his book, Sylvicultura Oeconomica (The Economics of Forestry). He outlined the triad principles of sustainability (ecology, economy and social aspects) and, like the modern ecological economists … subordinated human economic activity to natural restraints. Carlowitz believed that trade and commerce had to serve the society and treat nature in a careful and considerate way. Also, he saw economic activity as responsible for future generations.
Throughout the entirety of his 1713 text, Carlowitz used the word sustainability only once — or sustainable or sustained, in fact, since he used the term in its descriptive form as an adjective (nachhhaltende), not a noun. He did so while advocating for the adoption of sustainable forestry practices as follows:
Therefore the highest level of art, science, industry and institutions in this country will have to make every effort to achieve conservation and cultivation of wood for continuous and sustained utilization, because it is an indispensable matter, without which a country cannot continue in its esse (translation of Carlowitz, 1713).
In making his argument, Carlowitz relied on context — sustainability context — to give his proposals meaning. The particular type of context he relied on was the stock of forests and the rate at which trees grow, an environmental condition or fact that should determine, he argued, the maximum rate at which humans harvest trees.
Context, in sustainability management, then, is always reflective of one or more social and/or environmental conditions in the world, which in turn give rise to thresholds or standards of performance that tell us what our impacts should or should not be in order for our behaviors to be sustainable (i.e., so as to preserve stocks of vital resources important to human and non-human well-being).
In Carlowitz’s case, the context of interest was an environmental kind — the finite supply of trees and their actual rate of growth — and his management proposals were expressed in precisely those terms: The rate of tree logging should not exceed the rate at which trees actually grow or reproduce. It would not have been enough to simply say that humans should be logging less; rather, the question was by how much less? The actual rate of tree growth supplied the answer.
Not only can we say, then, that Carlowitz’s text in 1713 was the world’s first formal articulation of sustainability theory and practice applied to management, it also constitutes the first appearance of what we now think of as the triple bottom line, and the all-important principle of sustainability context — the principle that measuring, managing and reporting the sustainability performance of organizations (or human collectives, more broadly) must be done in light of the limits and demands placed on vital capital resources.
Let us take a moment, then, and recognize and be thankful for this auspicious moment, when, three hundred years ago, the foundations for today's best practices in corporate sustainability management were laid.