What is a sustainable corporation?

Relative responsibility vs. absolute sustainability?

There are no sustainable companies in the world, though there are some which plan to be (Interface, Seventh Generation, Becker Underwood and Elopak).

There are no true sustainability indexes out there, though there are many that sound as if they might be (DJSI, Newsweek’s Green Rankings, Corporate Knights’ Top 100 Most Sustainable Companies).

The business of corporate sustainability is currently one of relative responsibility, not absolute sustainability. Incremental progress and out performance of peers is often mistakenly celebrated as being in some way sustainable. It may be less unsustainable, but it is not sustainable.

Sustainability is an absolute concept. It has a binary success factor at its heart – something is either sustainable or it is not. This success factor is derived from an understanding of the operating context for business, which in turn is derived from the physical conditions on the planet which give rise to life, weather, resources and everything else.

Responsibility is a relative concept, it derives from social norms and expectations. To be responsible an individual or organisation has to pay attention to the general behavior of peers, partners and competitors and to act relative to that.

Yet mapping one concept to the other is not impossible. An organisation, could for example, consider that has a responsibility to be absolutely sustainable…

Keep it simple

Words can get in the way of the meaning. At their heart, corporate sustainability and corporate responsibility actually mean the same things to most people; the balancing of environmental, social and economic priorities over the long term.

In turn, both CSR and corporate sustainability management activities are simple, they should:

  • Focus upon core business,
  • Address fundamental business dependencies (e.g. resources, energy, a capable workforce and capable customers),
  • Apply performance targets to the company as a whole.
  • Be capable of verification by independent third parties.

The key thing then is not the words used to describe the management of these three priorities but the ambition and intent that drives action. Where does your company want to get to and how does it plan to get there?

Longevity means paying attention

Just as any species unable to notice or adapt to changing conditions is likely to die out, companies which are unable to pay attention, interpret and respond to a changing operating environment are unlikely to last for long.

A contextually aware company

Sustainability is really about the same thing, paying attention to context. This is very familiar to most companies. Expensive management consultants make money through selling new and brightly coloured models for interpreting and navigating an organisation’s competitive environment. Sustainability is no different, it’s just that the scope is bigger.

Get to the point, what is a sustainable corporation?

A sustainable corporation is an organisation that determines its behaviour through a detailed understanding of the environmental and social context in which it operates, works within the understood limitations of that system to reflect the demand and requirements of society, and ensures that its impact upon environment and society is either neutral or positive.

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