Understanding Sustainability

“Sustainability” can be a difficult concept for many to understand.  This is not surprising, since it can assume a variety of meanings when viewed from different perspectives. 

Some people focus on the impacts on the environment, society, the economy and future generations.  Their perspective focuses almost entirely on negative impacts – the damage that has occurred.  Many people have begun to tune out these negative portrayals.  We need something that provides a more positive approach.

By adopting the perspective of an “organization,” we can find opportunities to operate responsibly in a way to benefit all the stakeholders.  Let’s try to define sustainability in this way:

Sustainability is the capability of an organization to transparently manage its responsibilities for environmental stewardship, social well-being, and economic prosperity over the long term while being accountable to its stakeholders.

Using this perspective, the organization’s activities, products and services may have impacts on the environment, society and the economy.  However, these impacts impose operational, regulatory and reputational risks back on that organization.  By managing these three risk categories, both negative and positive, the organization can be proactive and responsible.  Many organizations have core values that include their responsibility and the responsibility of those who work for them.  To reinforce these responsibilities and make them more specific to daily activities, a “code of conduct” is developed to outline the expectations for how responsibility will be made part of how the organization operates.

Sustainability is about using formal or informal management systems to make sustainability part of what every employee does every day.  It is part of the work instructions and operational controls.  It is not something additional that needs to be done.  Sustainability is also about the use of performance frameworks.  Many of us have heard of the Baldrige performance framework, a national award conveyed by the President of the United States for the organizations with the highest scoring operational excellence programs.  The framework scores leadership, strategic planning, employee engagement, customer and other stakeholder engagement, information and knowledge management, and process management.  These are the elements that drive the results of the management system.  It is possible to create quantitative leading indicators from this model and use them to drive the sustainability results (lagging indicators) over the long term.  This operational definition of sustainability from the perspective of an organization enables each business to identify the impacts and corresponding risks associated with its activities, products and services.  It provides a set of established tools that provide resilience to deal with unforeseen risks and to have the capacity to adjust in a way that safeguards the interests of its key stakeholders, reputation, brand, and value-creating activities.  Sustainability is about preparing an organization to deal with its internal and external contexts that might otherwise prevent it from achieving its objectives.  As such it is equally applicable to all organizations and helps them proactively and responsibly operate in a manner to be a steward of the environment, society and the economy.  Sustainability is not complicated, but it does take a lot of attention to make it work well.

When I discuss sustainability, I often think of Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz.”  She always had the power to return home with those ruby slippers.  She just had to know how to use them.  Good operations with proven methods provide us with the same power within each and every organization we are engaged with.  And we don’t need the magic!  Our power is in collectively acting as good stewards while providing the service associated with each of our organizations that enrich our lives and those of others.

Robert B. Pojasek, Ph.D. is the Sustainability Leader at Exponent, Inc. (NASDAQ: EXPO) a leading engineering and scientific consulting firm providing solutions to its clients in the areas of human health, environmental and engineering issues and risks associated with new products and supply chains to help prevent problems in the future.  He has forty years of experience providing management consulting in the areas of process improvement, management systems and sustainability.  Dr. Pojasek is an adjunct professor at Harvard University where he teaches a distance learning sustainability course that draws about 200 students from 30 countries.  He is the Chair of the Executive Board of the Corporate Responsibility Officers Association.

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