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News & Events


SBC blog: What is a sustainable business?

February 9, 2015

Thoughts from the editor: As we have been working on this redesign of the Sustainable Business Center website, we were often discussing what exactly we mean when we say "sustainable business." Although there are many applicable definitions, we wanted to hear from our team members. This month we asked our Local Food and Agriculture Coordinator, who has over ten years of experience with sustainability, to share his definition.

Sustainability. We see that word almost every day but what does it mean? A broad definition is the ability to create and maintain human existence without jeopardizing the existence of future generations. The most widely quoted definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) report issued by Oxford University Press in 1987 who defined sustainability as:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The origin of the word ‘sustainable’ is from the Latin words ‘sus tenere’ – to hold up. The question is ‘what to hold up?’ ‘What to sustain?’ ‘Who decides what aspects of human life to keep?’

Sustainability is a word with multiple uses and touches virtually every realm of human existence but can be into three pillars: environmental, economic and social. It is imperative to define what is sustainable so as to know what is not sustainable. It should be made clear however that sustainability is more than environmental health but rather a set of structural concerns. How does industry coexist with subsistence peoples and respect the ecological life systems that support them? How do we manifest cultural identity and clean energy?

Environmental: how do we maintain biological diversity and productivity in our natural environment and maintain human existence? How do we live within our environmental means? Is the source of our energy creating a larger problem? How are we maximizing efficiency? Are products creating more benefits than waste? How can manufacturing maintain productivity and leave behind a balanced ecosystem? What is the water and carbon footprint of production? Is the food we eat humanely raised, organically grown? How much food waste and miles go in the foods we eat? How do we grow the food we need and maintain a healthy ecosystem? Environmental sustainability is inevitably tied to human survival. It is impossible to guarantee human existence without understanding the consequences of drastically changing ecosystems and sustainable development.

Economical: How are financial investments steered toward environmental and social fairness? How is it challenging the dynamics of poverty? How are our actions affecting communities and organizations in meeting basic needs, evolve? How do we define economic success and growth? Economy drives environmental degradation and embracing the triple bottom line principle of people, profit and planet is an important step toward economic sustainability, social justice and environmental stewardship.

Social: How do we enhance cultural identity, heritage, justice, social capital, human rights, healthcare and educational opportunities? Are there public policies that challenge the structural dynamics of poverty?

Sustainability is thus a set of cross cutting concerns that seeks to ensure that balance, fairness and continuance is applied to human interaction with each other and the environment.

Although I ended up with more questions than answers, I encourage you to bring up these points of discussion with others so that we can continue to improve and expand our dialogue on sustainability.