Currently, sustainability is a lot like beauty — its definition lies in the eyes of the beholder. This author’s preference is for actionable definitions that can be integrated into daily operational processes. The following is an attempt to define sustainability through this lens.
Sustainability is the conscious and proactive use of methods that do not harm people, planet or profit while also leaving a positive impact. The processes used to achieve sustainability must be reliable, replicable and measurable; outcomes must be confirmable, especially by outside scrutiny. Sustainability covers all three time frames: rectifying past mistakes; reducing or eliminating current problems; building legacies for future generations. It is a human-driven process. Machines don’t run companies or processes, people do; sustainability maximizes human talent by harnessing attention towards optimization and process excellence. With respect to accounting and accountability, the focus is on appreciation, not depreciation (aka positive impact). The goal of zero harm by definition leads to strategies that must comply with legal and ethical standards. Incremental approaches work best. Speed is defined by the ability to maintain positive rates of change.
There are five phases and seven processes inherent to sustainability:
- Safety — The elimination of harm is the starting point for sustainability. If you build a house with a leak in its foundation, eventually the house will collapse, regardless of how much work you put into the structure. The same principle applies to sustainability: If harm is occurring anywhere in the system, it undermines all other efforts regardless of how much progress is made. The most poignant example of why safety is critical comes from terrorism. You can create the best functioning community on the planet but, as long as a terrorist attack is possible, there is the risk of losing everything that is created overnight. Food security is another example — without proper nourishment, the human body collapses. Easter Island is a reminder of what happens to entire civilizations when consumption is not curbed. For details see the Tragedy of the Commons.
- Growth — Organic entities grow by default (bacteria, people, vegetation, animals, etc). Growth is not only physical (e.g. from 8 inches to 6 feet) but also through reproduction or self-replication. In order to ensure growth is sustainable, we must ensure growth rates are not exceeding available resources and capacity. This requires coordinated action at all levels (global to local).
- Abundance — While abundance is often negatively typified as excess, its real focus is the absence of lack coupled with the generation of surplus that can be shared. Situations that generate lack are those that remove resources from one area/entity in order to accumulate these in another area/entity. Hoarding and excessive accumulation are scarcity based behaviors. Such situations generate conflict. Focusing on collaboration and sharing generates harmony. Surplus wealth can be used for long term research and development investments. Surplus food can be used to feed those in areas where there is always shortage. Instead of viewing abundance as an evil, abundance should be used to establish system and global equilibriums (this is not the same as global equality or parity, it is the reallocation of surplus to eliminate scarcity). For an interesting debate on the use of money, you can purchase this broadcast.
- Progression — Maslow referred to this as self-actualization Inherent in this phase is the concept of fulfillment. Progression goes beyond the psychological contract‘s emphasis on the present and creates voluntary contracts with the future (promises to those we have never met).
- Inheritance — Our human existence leaves legacies for the future. These legacies can be both positive and negative. Negative legacies contribute to deterioration (e.g. crime and abuse). Positive legacies contribute to improvement (e.g. love, knowledge, choices). For a family orientation with religious underpinnings see Six Word Lessons to Build a Sustainable Legacy. For organizational guides see 5 Rules for Becoming a CSR Leader and Five Traits of Firms that Create a Sustainability ROI.
- Transparency — Open review and scrutiny is essential; one can claim not to be causing harm but this does not account for unintended consequences (e.g. if I say I’m not upsetting another person but the other person feels upset, there is a discrepancy that needs to be remedied; the same applies to environmental impact — if one does not know one is producing a toxin but scientific evidence confirms damage, rectification is needed). For additional information see sustainability reporting, SASB, SROI, new metrics.
- Waste Reduction — Resource conservation is critical; depletion of non-renewable materials must be avoided at all costs. Two frameworks that focus on this are Lean and Zero Waste.
- Materials Reuse — One person’s garbage is another’s treasure; instead of focusing on disposal and containment, we can learn to find ways to create new products. See by-product synergy, paper from agricultural residue.
- Positive Impact — Safety (zero harm, zero toxicity, zero strain) is tantamount! Beyond safety (going above the zero standard) we must engage in life cycle management which involves managing for both present and future generations. For details see Cradle to Cradle.
- Quality Control — Quality cannot be evaluated without standards; standards not only define baseline performance, they guide operational activities designed to meet and exceed those standards. Standards must be documented in order to be controllable. When processes fail to meet standards there is a defect which requires rework, redesign and/or re-engineering. For details see ISO 14000, ISO 26000, Accounting for right-sizing/producing what is valuable, ASQ Sustainability Planning Assessment.
- Value Creation — any organization (including non-profits) must deliver value; value is determined by the level of demand that exists and organizations (like organisms) engage in behavior that responds and reacts to environmental stiumli. Ensuring value is created requires double-loop learning, stakeholder engagement and design of experiments. For tools see Ansoff Theory and Value Stream Mapping.
- Evolution — Darwin’s theory of evolution — “survival of the fittest” — is often misconstrued into dominance theories. In reality, it is more about the adaptation to changing environmental stimuli (both physically and biologically). Survival occurs when the traits/characteristics that are best suited to the new environment are passed on because those without the traits for the new environment become obsolete and, ultimately, extinct. As an example, if oxygen were to suddenly disappear from the Earth’s atmosphere, all that would survive are species and organisms that can exist without oxygen. Rapid environmental changes cause species collapses. Gradual environmental changes cause adaptive reactions. The same occurs with organizations. Resilience and agility are becoming organizational mandates. Research is also showing that quality and innovation are necessary to sustain market value.