What is Corporate Sustainability?

These days, corporate sustainability is a bit of a business buzz word. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d heard it used in many contexts. Sustainability is also an overly used, abused and misused word. Many times I have heard it used in the corporate workplace, e.g. we are a sustainable organisation etc, where it has simply been substituted for “financial viability”, which in my view, is plain wrong.

The term sustainability’s overuse and multiple definitions make understanding exactly what corporate sustainability is, somewhat confusing. Variations and alternatives include green business, corporate social responsibility (sometimes shortened to CSR), corporate responsibility, carbon strategy, corporate citizenship and triple bottom line accountability. It’s no wonder the definition can be difficult to grapple with, there are multiple names for seemingly the same thing!

An early and often referenced definition of sustainability was provided by the 1987 Brundtland Report, ‘Our Common Future’, published by the world commission on environment and development (WCED); sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

John Elkington coined the term ‘triple bottom line’ and following that, a useful term to make the concept simpler to grasp and remember, the 3P’s – People, Profit & Planet.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes definition is – “Corporate Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments.”

In short, there are many definitions out there. Corporate sustainability is a reference to relevant social and environmental issues, in addition to the traditional business driver of generating a return for investors. I like the Dow Jones definition that references the opportunities associated with incorporating sustainability into a business, in addition to managing risks.

In my experience, the best definition I have found is that, it depends. With the earlier definitions in mind and reference to the 3P’s, it is important that individual companies define the context of sustainability relevant to their organisation and its unique operations and impacts. Without a definition or statement of mission or values, the word ‘sustainability’ will continue to be misused and this in turn breeds skepticism.

So what do you think? Does your organisation define corporate sustainability?


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