Meaning of Sustainability

How It Differs from Sustainable Development, Social Responsibility, Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate Responsibility, Environmental Sustainability, Corporate Citizenship, Global Citizenship, and Sustainable Growth

To understand sustainability consulting, it is important to first understand what sustainability means and how it differs from a wide range of terms being used in the same context.  Below is an explanation.

A few years after the deadly toxic release disaster in Bhopal, India and amidst the turmoil over apartheid (racial segregation) in South Africa, the United Nations formed the Brundtland Commission to propose strategies for improving human well-being without threatening the environment.  In 1987 the Commission published its landmark report containing the definition of sustainable development most widely used today: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Five years later, the concept was fleshed out in 27 principles in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the work product of the Rio Earth Summit–the U.N Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The declaration recited the economic and environmental concerns that had been the main focus of sustainability, but added social topics like peace, poverty and the role of women and indigenous people.  Using a financial analogy, sustainable development came to mean living off the interest from our economic, environmental and social resources while leaving the principal for future generations so their lives can be as good, if not better, than our own.

Carrying the financial analogy further, in 1997 Briton John Elkington introduced a term drawn from financial accounting: the triple bottom line (TBL). By this he meant that for a company (or other organization) to help society achieve sustainable development while securing its own long-term wellbeing, it must meet not only the economic “bottom line” performance expected by shareholders and other organizational owners, but fulfill the important environmental and social expectations of other key stakeholders as well.  Elkington used the shorthand term “sustainability” for this concept.  When the global reporting initiative (GRI) issued its draft Sustainability Reporting Guidelines for organizations, it too assumed sustainability entailed all three TBL elements.

In short, from the perspective of an organization, sustainability is about establishing and sustaining over the long term the type of organization desired by its key stakeholders—its owners and investors, managers and employees, communities and governments, customers and suppliers, and interested environmental and social groups, among others.  It is about pursuing values-based management framed around the 2Rs: Respect and Resources—respecting people and other living things while at the same time wisely managing economic and natural resources to achieve the long-term well-being of the organization and society.  Global multi-stakeholder groups commonly find the following topics encompassed by sustainability:

  • Financial viability of the organization
  • Community well-being and development
  • Diversity among the workforce, management, and suppliers
  • Labor-management relations and labor practices, including employee compensation, training, development, health and safety, and work-life balance
  • Environmental, health, and safety aspects of operations, products, and services
  • Compliance with legal and ethical standards
  • Fair competition and marketing practices
  • Social and environmental impacts along the supply chain
  • Organizational governance to ensure conformance with legal and ethical standards and the values of sustainability
  • Respecting key stakeholders and engaging and transparently communicating with them

Because the long-term well-being of society or any organization cannot be achieved through environmental responsibility alone, the term environmental sustainability is an oxymoron and should be avoided. The terms “environment” or “environmental responsibility” are more accurate.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR), social responsibility (SR), corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship, global citizenship, and sustainable growth are sometimes used to mean the same as sustainability. Think of socially responsible investing, which has come to mean investing in companies taking into account not only their financial performance but that on environmental, social and governance matters as well. While sustainability, as we have seen, originated from a concern about the balance between the environment and economics, the terms related to responsibility and citizenship have generally sprung from the tradition of corporate philanthropy. With the advent of the TBL, all those concepts have been drifting together.

Still, there are many who insist that these terms carry different meanings.  Social responsibility refers to one of the three parts of the TBL that covers community and employee issues and the like. But the term is often used in a broader sense, too. The ISO 26000 Guideline Standard on Social Responsibility considers it to embrace everything within sustainability expect the financial viability of the organization.

Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR—a term of growing popularity, especially in Europe—is occasionally used in a way that excludes environmental responsibility, although the more popular usage includes it. Indeed, documents labeled “CSR reports” often cover the same TBL scope as those called “sustainability reports.” Some other variations of CSR exclude economic responsibility, however. For instance, the European Commission Green Paper defines it as “a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operation and in their interaction with their stakeholders.”

The term corporate responsibility is usually thought to be synonymous with social responsibility or with business ethics. To some people, corporate citizenship suggests an emphasis on activities within local communities weighted more toward social concerns than environmental ones.

Companies like DuPont that have used the term sustainable growth intended it to mean corporate sustainability as defined by the TBL, adding the word growth to make clear sustainability is not about stagnation. However, to others, the term sustainable growth is to be avoided because it suggests the need to increase size or consumption, irrespective of other ways of adding value through sustainability. Some even think these words mean simply perpetual growth with no social or environmental emphasis at all.

Admittedly, the raft of terms can be quite confusing, especially since these fine distinctions are sometimes followed, sometimes not. You should feel free to use any term that best fits with the goals and culture of your organization. Businesses may also find more descriptive terms, like “a better company, a better world,” “long-term well-being,” or “people, planet and profits” to be useful in certain communications.

Still, WBC finds sustainability to be the most appropriate term given its breadth, origin, and consistent inclusion of an organization’s financial success—an indispensable element for its long-term survival.