What is Sustainability?

By Bruce Wade

The word Sustainability is one of those common buzzwords that is thrown around the business sector like chocolate cookies at Easter time. It is now included in most marketing campaigns, on labels of products and added to pie charts to impress managers and shareholders. But do we actually know what it means to use the term sustainable?

The dictionary defines sustainability as ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’ or a better version ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance’.

I prefer the second definition as it speaks to the outcomes not just the status quo. This can also be refocused on the avoidance or depletion of the economy, human capital, energy, stocks, etc etc.

So, how does one design and implement strategies with a sustainable focus? It speaks to first understanding what we are hoping to sustain and understanding the current ‘level of stock’ for that entity before we even begin.

Then once we understand what we are focusing on the sustain, we can begin to explore the depletion agents that are at work. This will be different for each entity we focus on. Fish stocks are different to human capital or customer enthusiasm. The softer the entity, the harder it becomes to measure and understand the variations of the levels. How does one measure happiness or client engagement, it is so much easier to count cows in a field or money in the bank. But count we must, and measurement tools must be created.

Only then can we begin to develop sustainable strategies that work against the depletion and add to the increase of our measured entity.

But any such strategy can only be advertised once it is implemented, trialled, and measured for success. Then if the results are positive and we are getting to the desired goals, we can stick the Sustainable label on the project to showcase our results.

Until then, we are only speculating based on our cost-effective best guess and hope that what we are trying to do is just greenwash our efforts to appease our clients and the shareholders.

Maybe it is time to regulate this word and begin to ask the hard questions of those who use the term ‘Sustainable’ and ask them for proof of their marketing BS, just to get us to buy into their brand.