What is sustainability?

Sustainability is the ability to maintain current activities with the resources (economic, human and environmental) available now and in the future.

Sustainable development

The term ‘sustainable development’ refers to the ability of an organisation to grow without detrimentally affecting its ability to operate in the future. For example, if we increase production to meet an increased demand, without considering future availability of raw materials required to make the components we need, this could affect productivity later and cause a decline in business. Organisations seeking to succeed in the future must find a way to innovate and achieve sustainability in all aspects of their operation. They must take a long-term, wide-angle view of their operations. Strategic planning can take into account possible scenarios 20, 50 or even 100 years into the future.

Sustainability is often generalised as the environmental aspects of a product or service but sustainability also encompasses the social and economic aspects of an organisation and its activities. This is sometimes referred to as the People, Planet, Profits paradigm, or the Triple Bottom Line.

Social sustainability

Social sustainability refers to maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with employees, customers and the community. Socially sustainable activities promote employee engagement and create organisational resilience through skills and knowledge retention. They also have indirect benefits in terms of public image, customer loyalty and community support for an organisation.

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability refers to the impact of resource usage, hazardous substances, waste and emissions on the physical environment. Activities promoting environmental sustainability have direct benefits for a business by reducing risk and identifying cost savings through the elimination of waste. Indirect benefits include future-proofing vulnerable supply chains and preparing for potential regulatory changes.

Economic sustainability

Economic sustainability refers to business efficiency, productivity and profit. Economic viability is a priority and should not be compromised when addressing social and environmental sustainability. However, a company that cannot make a profit without exploiting people or the environment will not prosper in the long-term. Social and environmental issues must be identified and addressed through innovation, the development of new business models and strategic investment.

A number of tools and techniques can be used to define the significant aspects of an operation, to measure and monitor risk, and to analyse, improve and control impacts now and in the future. Sustainable organisations consider all aspects of their activities and the actual or potential risk of social, environmental and economic impacts as part of their strategic planning.

Typical aspects might include:

Resource usage, such as water, energy, raw materials

The life cycle of products, ie. inputs and outputs from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal

Emissions to air (including noise), water and soil

Erosion and land clearing activities affecting aboriginal heritage and/or flora and fauna

Diversion of waste from landfill

Workforce development and succession planning

Community relations, including residents, businesses, schools and other institutions

Sustainable organisations have systems in place to respond to identified risks, to anticipate and prevent impacts and to build resilience to limit the effects of unforeseen impacts in the future.

Sustainability is not a quick-fix concept, it requires commitment from the entire organisation to consider the long-term future impacts of decisions made now. It also requires applied ‘design thinking’ to innovate and achieve the triumvirate of social, environmental and economic sustainability.