Defining Sustainability: A nod to the past, a vision for the future

Defining Sustainability: A nod to the past, a vision for the future

Nearly 400 sustainability professionals gathered in Monterey, CA, last week for the Sustainable Brands Conference and one of the first voices we heard called for a return to an older definition of sustainability.

As I’ve written here before, getting companies and consumers to understand what sustainability is a bit like nailing Jell-o to the wall. It’s messy. It’s squishy. And it comes in a lot of different colors and flavors.

The re-proposed definition – the Brundtland definition, named after a former United Nations Commission formed in 1983 and tasked with addressing growing concerns about natural resource depletion – is this: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sounds pretty straightforward. Or is it deceptively simple to understand and practically impossible to implement?

Businesses are still under enormous pressure to sell goods to consumers that, sometimes, they don’t really need. So how does a business become sustainable under this recycled Brundtland standard?

Here’s one forward-looking definition. It’s called a B Corporation. According to the web site, a B Corp is one that “uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. B Corporations are unlike traditional responsible businesses because they:

  • Meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards.
  • Institutionalize stakeholder interests.
  • Build collective voice through the power of a unifying brand.

And so far there are a few founding B Corps, ranging from investment advisors to housepainters, lawyers to coffee shops, architecture firms to fishing apparel manufacturers.

Each of them has agreed to the “Declaration of Interdependence” proposed by the founders. It says

“We envision a new sector of the economy which harnesses the power of private enterprise to create public benefit. This sector is comprised of a new type of corporation – the B Corporation – which is purpose-driven and creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

As members of this emerging sector and as entrepreneurs and investors in B Corporations, we hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • That we must be the change we seek in the world
  • That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
  • That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
  • To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.”

Consumers are starting to expect this kind of thinking and behavior from companies.  In our soon-to-be-released study, Eco Pulse, two-thirds (66%) of consumers are holding companies to the strictest criteria we tested – a company that uses renewable energy, produces zero waste in their manufacturing process and produces green products. The leading criteria (34%) for consumers deciding if a product is green is that it’s produced with very little impact on the environment. Nearly half (47%) of consumers take a company’s environmental record into account somewhat to very much when faced with a purchase decision.

So whether you subscribe to the Brundtland definition or not, whether you’re a B Corporation or not, know that the volume level on these expectations will continue to rise as more consumer voices are added to the sustainability choir. It will fall to you to be prepared with products that meet their needs without compromising the needs of future generations.


Posted on

June 11, 2009

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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