What is Sustainable Business?

With as much attention and interest as the concept of sustainable business is receiving these days, it sometimes surprises me that it often requires a 20 minute conversation with someone to understand if we mean the same thing.  Whether it's Corporate Social Responsibility, shared value, corporate responsibility, conscious capitalism, triple bottom line business or any of the other names, refrains and monikers being coined; never have I experienced a situation where so many use the same words to describe different things and so many use different words to mean the same thing.

As someone who's had the chance to work in this area for over a decade at a pretty deep level, I'm as guilty as the next person of diving into the semantics, nuance and inside baseball of these different descriptions, but let's take a step back - at the most basic level, what is Sustainable business thinking? 

Conventional thinking

Conventional wisdom states that delivering business profits requires some sacrifice of environmental and/or social performance - to make a cake you have to break some eggs.  When it's more profitable to pollute the environment and exploit people, Government is charged with deciding how much negative impact is acceptable and then enforcing laws to keep business in check.

The Problem

With this approach, even legal business pollutes, and on a worldwide scale we're hitting the limits of a resource-constrained world.  Conventional business is not delivering results that people can live with over the long term and the world is now a small enough place that we can see the negative consequences adding up and taking a toll on the environment and on people.  

When faced with the scale of the consequences most folks react with either denial, or despair.  We see plenty of examples of both.  But new thinking is offering a new option; Hope.

Sustainable Business thinking

Paraphrasing Einstein; Problems cannot be solved with the thinking that created them.  

Looking at business a new way offers a hopeful option. What if business could deliver more profits by improving the environment and enhancing the lives of people?  Instead of trying to find a balance between trade-offs of "doing the right thing" and making profits, business would instead find solutions built on reinforcing loops where doing more good delivered more profits.  When U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell used to say when she was CEO of REI, "what if the bigger we got the more good we could do, and the more good we did - the bigger we got".  Suddenly business is part of the solution rather than the problem.  Instead of facing resource constraints, we are surrounded by opportunity.

Over the past decade or two this new way of thinking has been documented and tested.  A body of literature, thought and case studies has emerged and leading businesses are starting to deliver real results by following these ideas.  It might sound too good to be true to the conventional thinker - but to those who are making the shift, its not theoretical or Pollyanna, its just better business.

In future blogs I'll do what I can to highlight the shift that’s happening, offer links to resources, and share examples from my experience at REI and other companies of how it's working (or not working) in real life.

Stay tuned – together we can make a difference.


Mt Baker's summit fills a climber with hope but is deceptively close as a hole blows in the cloud bank.  A metaphor for chasing what Ray Anderson dubbed "Mount Sustainablity"

Mt Baker's summit fills a climber with hope but is deceptively close as a hole blows in the cloud bank.  A metaphor for chasing what Ray Anderson dubbed "Mount Sustainablity"