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What is Sustainability?

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Question: What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is a term often used by corporations, politicians and environmental groups to evaluate industrial processes, economic systems and corporate policies. What does sustainability mean to each of these interest groups and the public in general, and why is it becoming so important in today's business world?
Answer:

Webster’s definition of sustain includes meanings such as "to keep from falling or sinking" and "to nourish or keep alive". Environmental sustainability refers to the potential longevity of a process, in terms of what natural resources it might draw on, how they are used or replenished, the overall impact of the final product on the environment and where it ends up following disposal. In essence, an environmentally sustainable process is one that contributes to keeping the environment healthy or "alive" by not consuming non-renewable resources, or contributing in other ways to the depreciation of the environment.

In business terms, to focus on sustainability might be defined as acting with long term consequences in mind and managing a business such that its processes or overall state can be maintained indefinitely. If economic sustainable development means developing corporate systems that will last indefinitely, the assumption is that these systems will have less impact on the environment than traditional, or less sustainable, systems. Sustainability is difficult to define or truly measure, since overall impacts and other variables exist that might never truly be known. However, a process can be defined as more or less sustainable than another, or as moving towards or away from sustainability.

According to the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes website, 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. Corporate sustainability leaders achieve long-term shareholder value by gearing their strategies and management to harness the market’s potential for sustainability products and services while at the same time successfully reducing and avoiding sustainability costs and risks.”

Some companies strive for corporate sustainability by making business decisions based on their environmental, social and economic impacts, because they recognize that every act that is detrimental to society in some way may come back as a negative repercussion on the business itself. This kind of forward thinking might not have worked in the earlier days of free enterprise but is becoming more common today among even large corporations, as managers and CEOs realize that environmental and social impacts are of great importance to the buying public and purchasing habits are being driven accordingly. A company that aims for corporate sustainability is also probably competitive, has good management, and long term potential for value, three criteria looked for by biotech investors.

Sustainability can be measured by doing a product Life-Cycle Analysis, where the environmental "footprint" of the product is determined. This is based on the resources required to produce the product, end use of the product and the final resting place of the product (i.e. recycled, composted, landfilled). A company with a track record for making decisions based on local and global sustainability might appear to take losses in the short term for higher costs or smaller profit margins, but can profit overall from higher employee satisfaction and productivity, and a better reputation and long term following due to public perceptions of the company. Many large and well known corporations, such as FujiFilm, Kimberly-Clark and Novozymes have policies regarding sustainability which are outlined for public view on their websites.

Sources:

Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes. http://www.sustainability-indexes.com/07_htmle/sustainability/corpsustainability.html.

Webster’s Dictionary, 1987 Edition. Ottenheimer Publishers Inc.

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