Is there such a thing as a sustainable business?

To inspire change, leaders need to paint a clear, compelling vision of the future.  Frankly, the often-used expression that "sustainability is a journey, not a destination", just doesn’t get it done for me.  Business leaders can’t say “follow me”, if they can’t explain where we’re going and convince us that the destination is worth the trip. 

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination
— said no business leader ever

Making matters a little more difficult in this area is that sustainability is a description of a well functioning system, not an individual or entity.  In other words, there’s no such thing as a sustainable business without the context in which it operates.  A metaphor might be that there is no such thing as a sustainable tree – trees consume resources and produce waste, therefore they are not sustainable in themselves.  However, arguably there can be a sustainable forest – in that context the tree is moving and changing resources, not consuming and destroying them.  A tree’s air pollution is what we call oxygen.  McDonough & Braungart say it in a sticky fashion in their cradle-to-cradle design principals; “waste equals food”

The problem for a business leader is that while a sustainable business ecosystem is a helpful philosophical device, it is not an actionable company agenda. It’s hard enough to change the things within our control, how can we influence all the other things needed to make that vision come true?

The good news is that we don’t have to fix it all at once and there are plenty of compelling benefits for making one-step-at-a-time changes within the business.  Corporations are showing that implementing the kinds of improvements that move us along the road can deliver huge pay-offs in the near term.  Incremental improvements also called eco-efficiency deliver real-time returns and can set up the business for bigger benefits to come.

The end state sustainable system will need a lot of collaboration to construct; government, civil society, individuals as well as business will all have to play their roles in the change.  In order to do our part, business needs to make calculated changes and address issues within a master plan that delivers returns and makes wise investments that help break chicken and egg roadblocks.  For example a company that invests in redesigning product packaging to be 100% recyclable might not enjoy the biggest pay-back until the recycling system can reprocess old packaging into low cost raw materials; but the short term benefits might be to reduced packaging costs, reduce transportation costs and improved customer acceptance.

The key is to know what the end state looks like and inspire the innovation within the company to do our part – sustainability is a journey, but there is a destination and it’s worth the trip.  

New life from an old growth stump near Goat Lake, WA

New life from an old growth stump near Goat Lake, WA