Christopher: What Does Sustainability Really Mean?

I recently attended several sustainability conferences here in West Michigan and was amazed that a great deal of the introductory discussion still centered on the meaning of sustainability. Yes, sustainability still means many things to many people. One question a CEO raised was whether sustainability meant the use of 100% renewable energy? Another question raised was whether sustainability meant transparency and accountability? Others equate sustainability only with the environment and protecting and restoring our planet. Are all of these perspectives right? Is one viewpoint better than the others?

To begin, if one goes to defining sustainability by using a dictionary, you would see synonyms like “continuity, integrality, wholeness, renewability, viability, endurance” (1). To those that have implemented some of sustainability’s best practices, sustainability has always included the “triple bottom line” (TBL) of environmental, social, and economic perspectives and impact. Therefore, to some sustainability has always been associated with environmental science and concerns such as improving air pollution, saving energy, using renewable energy sources and options, minimizing waste, ensuring water quality, preserving natural resources, protecting land use, designing efficient buildings etc. To others, sustainability has a great affinity and association with social equity, social justice, transparency, accountability, etc. And for those in the private sector, sustainability must also show a positive impact to the bottom line through cost savings, efficiencies, and long-term value creation.

What then are the roots of sustainability that have come from the previous generations? Our Native Americans defined sustainability as “we do not inherit the earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children.” The major thought that crosses your mind from this perspective is addressing the question of what are we passing on to our children and grandchildren? Our African Elders defined sustainability as “enough for all forever.” The question that comes forth from this mindset is what is enough for everyone to meet their needs and improve their overall well-being?

Most every leader from the private, public, and academic sector today is faced with making decisions, many of which address short-term issues and concerns. However, as can be seen, sustainability is mostly focused on the long-term problems and solutions. Therefore, metrics to measure sustainability performance must be specific and inclusive of social, environmental, and economic measurements. Over the short term, sustainability measurements that monitor continuous improvement, cost savings, and efficiencies will determine progress. Longer term, sustainability measurements that track and determine value creation and economic impact will determine overall success. One of the most important takeaways is that sustainability also provides a pathway to confront risk management concerns and reduce its impact as well.

What then does sustainability really mean in marketplace terms? As can be seen, sustainability implies more than green. Sustainability also entails “doing well by doing good!” However, in layman terms sustainability is not about achieving a destination point, nor is it political in nature. Sustainability is about innovation, creativity, change, empowerment, and raising the bar on your own. Therefore, sustainability can be defined as a set of applied best practices, tools, and processes that enables one to make an improved decision, both for today as well as tomorrow, while generating positive social, environmental, and economic performance.

Is there an even greater understanding of what “true sustainability” is all about? (2) True sustainability engages the 4th leg of sustainability, beyond the TBL of social, economic, and environmental performance. The 4th leg is about culture, values, and identity. It is about a sense of place that each one of us has as an individual, with our families, with the companies and organizations that employ us, and with the communities where we live and serve. To become more sustainable, there are a number of values that support this improved decision making; stewardship, connectedness, service, transparency, and creativity. I am encouraged that many of the young millennials embrace these values, and I look forward to this next generation of future leaders making better and improved decisions for all of us.

I wish you the best on your sustainability journey!

Norman Christopher
Director, Office of Sustainability Practices
Grand Valley State University
Author, Sustainability Demystified