Sustainability in Business: What does it really mean?

Sustainability in Business: People, Profit, Planet 

Sustainability in business is such a huge topic. It covers a wide range of activities within the workplace. Business sustainability goes far beyond a company implementing environmentally friendly practices. From staff development, business longevity, financial security and the impact of the business on the environment – sustainability is really just a broad term that needs to be broken down into key areas and tackled bit by bit.  

What is sustainability? 

The definition (defined by the Oxford dictionary) of sustainability is: ‘the ability to continue or be continued for a long time’. However, if you’re looking specifically at sustainable development, the most widely used definition comes from that of the 1987 Brundtland Report where they suggest ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ While this definition is somewhat vague, it certainly demonstrates the large scope of sustainability within business. Sustainability is so much more than simply being focused on environmental, economic or social aspects. It’s a mixture of them all. And until they are all working in harmony, can a business really claim to be sustainable?  

Social Sustainability (People) 

This aspect isn’t thought about with the same weight as the other ‘Pillars of Sustainability’.  Social sustainability focusses on creating healthy communities for people to live and work in.  How does a business create a healthy culture for its staff? For instance, mental health and wellbeing has become big news over the last few years and plays an important part in social sustainability. Organisations that embed social sustainability (also known as social responsibility) into their culture encourage greater productivity from their staff and maybe more importantly happier employees.  A happy workforce helps to sustain business in a number of ways, for example; by having staff who stay with an organisation longer, take less sick days, work well as a team and interact better with customers.  

Economic Sustainability (Profit) 

Profit, profit, profit! If you thought economic sustainability centred around the bottom line, you’d be wrong. Economic sustainability is, in fact, a very complex pillar and very much linked to the other two. Sure, looking after your staff can make them more productive which has got to be good for profits, but what about good governance? Are your directors and managers thinking about their shareholders, customers and company culture when they are making decisions? Are they, for example transparent, ethical and avoiding conflicts of interest?  Do staff get involved in decision making? Are you considering and managing risks? We have only just touched on economic sustainability and it’s definitely not all about the profits! 

Environmental Sustainability (Planet) 

Without a doubt, this is the pillar that is getting the most attention at the moment. Thanks to people like Greta Thunberg, the environment is a hot topic.  Businesses and individuals are looking at how they can contribute to the climate emergency and become greener. From reducing their carbon footprint, using less plastic, reducing waste and limiting water usage.  This is all great news but it can come with a cost and can then have an impact on economic sustainability. This means compromises may have to be made, these compromises may be passed down by cutting corners in social sustainability. It is important to remember the happy workforce also requires a desirable environment to work in. Even just placing a few ‘air purifying’ plants into an office can make a huge difference to how people feel.   

As you can see, this topic could quite easily make for a thesis, but hopefully, you will have taken away a general overview and the key areas that make up sustainability in business.

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