What is Sustainability?

The term sustainability brings to mind carbon footprints, greenhouse gas and old growth forests but all organisations strive for sustainability, particularly in the context of a changing global economy and finite primary resources.

Sustainability is simply the ability to maintain operations with the resources available (economic, human and environmental) now and in the future.

The term “sustainable development” refers to the ability of an organisation to grow without detrimentally affecting its ability to operate in the future. For example, if we increase production to meet an increased demand without considering future availability of raw materials required to make the components we need, this could affect productivity later and cause a decline in business.

Organisations seeking sustainability take a long-term, wide-angle view of their operations. Strategic planning can take into account possible scenarios 20, 50 or even 100 years into the future.

Popular culture such as advertising and other media focuses mainly on environmental aspects but sustainability also encompasses the social and economic aspects of an organisation and its activities. This is sometimes referred to as the People, Planet, Profits paradigm, or the Triple Bottom Line.

Social sustainability activities focus on maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with employees, customers and the community.
These activities often have benefits in terms of positive profile and customer and community support. They also promote employee loyalty creating organisational resilience through skills and knowledge retention.

Environmental sustainability activities focus on the impact of resource usage, hazardous substances, waste and emissions on the physical environment.
These activities may have a direct benefit for a business by reducing costs. Indirect benefits include securing supply chains for the future.

Economic sustainability activities focus on business efficiency, productivity and profit.
Economic viability is a priority and should not be compromised when addressing social and environmental sustainability.

Organisations seeking to succeed in the future must find a way to innovate and achieve sustainability in all aspects of their operation.

A number of tools and techniques can be implemented to define the significant aspects of an operation, measure and monitor impacts, analyse, improve and control impacts now and in the future.

Sustainable operations consider significant aspects of their activities and their actual or potential impacts during planning. Typical aspects might include:

Sustainable organisations have systems in place to respond to identified risks, to anticipate and prevent impacts and to build resilience to limit the effects of unforeseen impacts in the future.

Sustainability is not a quick-fix concept, it requires commitment from the entire organisation to consider the long-term future impacts of decisions made now. It also requires applied “design thinking” to innovate and achieve the triumvirate of social, environmental and economic sustainability.

The Sustainable Action Learning program aims to facilitate this process through action learning, or learning by doing.