Sustainability means different things to different people.
We all have a different perspective on this concept, how we can use it, what it means.
When a word becomes so popular that you hear it everywhere it means one of two things: The word may be reduced to a meaningless cliché or it is a truly powerful concept.
“Green” or “going green” fits into the first category but sustainability has every right to be considered in the second.
Yes, we hear about sustainability in nearly every industry — but that is because at its core it is a simple concept that can be applied everywhere.
Sustainability means not taking more than we need, but also, at the same time, being aware of the interdependence between the needs of people, the planet and businesses making profit.
Sustainability means working to make all three positive.
Even with this simplicity, people sometimes have difficulty applying the concept of sustainability.
There is confusion and myths and misconceptions have developed.
In this article, I’d like to discuss and hopefully clear up some of these myths.
No One Knows What Sustainability Is
Sustainability as a concept has been around for a long time, but its modern definition was developed in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission).
It defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Notice that this definition mentions nothing about protecting the environment even though the words sustainable and sustainability are commonly used by environmentalists.
That leads us to the next misconception.
Sustainability Is All About The Environment
Sustainability is about the Triple Bottom Line, or the three P’s of sustainability: People, planet, and profit.
The triple bottom line implies that all of these concerns must be positive and that they are interconnected and dependent on each other.
You can’t make profit and keep people happy or rewarded while also hurting the environment.
Also, you cannot benefit the environment and people while hurting businesses.
All must work together and benefit each other to be sustainable.
This leads to a related but separate myth.
Sustainable Is A Synonym For Green
There is overlap between the terms but I believe many people think that green implies natural, or suggests a preference for it.
Technology has provided many benefits from solar cell energy to electric cars to wind turbines but none of these things are “natural.”
All of these technologies enable us to cook our food, get around and heat our homes using renewable energy sources while creating fewer environmentally harmful emissions.
People don’t think of nuclear power as green because of the difficulty in managing the radioactive waste.
This alternative energy source has been anathema to many environmentalists, but organizations like Greenpeace have become supporters of nuclear power because it does not emit harmful gases as coal or other fossil fuels plants do and it is an efficient source of power.
Calling nuclear power green is hard to do, but calling it sustainable is a lot easier.
It’s About Recycling
Recycling is important, but it’s not the most impactful component of sustainability.
Anytime we can reuse metals, chemicals, paper, wood and plastic rather than filing up landfills it is a step in the right direction.
Recycling also reduces the amount of new raw materials we need to extract from the environment.
Using resources more efficiently is always a step in the right direction.
However, the biggest impact we can have on society, the environment and business profitability is the reduction in energy usage.
This effects how we live and move, how we power our tools and get from activity to activity.
Sustainability Is Expensive
Here lies the greatest myth and strongest fear when it comes to sustainability.
In all honesty, there’s some truth to it, but only a small amount and definitely not in the long term.
You may have to spend slightly more money at the outset for sustainable technology — a more efficient furnace for your home, better lighting, more fuel efficient vehicles, etc. — but the truth is that the savings, over time, will more than make up for the initial costs.
Lowering costs will improve your profit every time, and the technology efficiencies drive benefits for both people and the planet.
New Technology Is The Answer
Sometimes existing technology can make a huge difference and it just takes a creative business model.
A great deal of resources have been directed to make electric car batteries that can travel hundreds of miles without the need to recharge because recharging is difficult and time consuming.
The goal of course with this technology is to cut down on emissions that are harmful to the environment.
There are entrepreneurs however who are looking at ways to deliver battery exchanges for cars similar to the propane cylinders we have on our barbecue grills.
When your battery is running low, simply exchange it as if you are refueling your car at any other fuel station, but with a new battery instead of gasoline.
The idea is to deliver distance, not better batteries, and we are using current technology to achieve the benefit rather than waiting for technology to advance.
We Need To Do More With Less
No one ever wants to lose what they have, nor reduce their standard of living.
But rest assured, our lives are not going to be more inconvenient or difficult because we make changes that benefit people, the planet and businesses.
Innovation plays an important part in sustainability to make sure that the three P’s are all positive.
As we organize ourselves and work with a mindset of finding new, creative ways to serve our customers and employees, the breakthroughs can be extraordinary.
Margins can improve with greater productivity and the use of new resources means our environment only gets better.
Sustainability Doesn’t Cause Problems
Sometimes, a choice that seems to be sustainable eventually shows itself to be problematic.
One such example is the production of ethanol from corn.
Corn is a renewable crop and one that you can harvest indefinitely … it seems like a great replacement for oil until you realize how energy intensive the cultivation of the crop and its conversion to ethanol are.
Also, by diverting the crop to fuel production you have less corn to feed livestock and people, thus driving up the cost of food.
You cannot declare something sustainable until a complete lifecycle analysis is done of the environmental and societal impacts.
While many myths have grown around the concept of sustainability, it is important to see through them to find the real benefits and realize the potential value that sustainable practices can bring to a company’s triple bottom line.
Mark Kozak is the president of BEAM Strategic Solutions, a consulting firm focused on helping companies with sustainability issues and product and process development. Kozak is a Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) ISSA Certification Expert (ICE) and an adjunct professor for the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Benedictine University’s College of Business. Contact Kozak at Mark@BEAMStrategic.com, and more information about the consulting and support services he offers can be found by visiting www.BEAMStrategic.com.