Sustainability v. Sustainability

I’ve done some work with a big tech company, most recently surrounding the topic of “sustainability” and “green”, two concepts so muddled by pop culture and marketing as to mean roughly…nothing. Anyhow, I’ve found it fascinating how the same term, in the same organization, can represent and reconcile seeming opposites. For example, from the grassroots level, a call for corporate social responsbility (CSR) represents a truly legitimate cause. Employees are holding serious discusssions on topics ranging from cafeteria materials and recycling to technological tools to replace (or at least reduce) worldwide travel.

Sustainability at this level focuses mainly on one of the fundamental tenets of Sustainable Development, generally defined as: “Meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”, and encompassing Environmental, Economic, and Social responsibility.   So, at the grassroots level, environmental issues appear to be the sole interest in the way of “sustainability”

Where it gets interesting though is at the level of decision-making, especially in CFO type positions. Sustainability becomes analagous to viability – economic viability. Generally ignoring environmental concerns, or at least treating them as a (welcome) bi-product of economic viability,  as a value in and of themslelves. To be sure, the global warming scare and subsequent marketability of “sustainable” products and services have shifted markets – but numbers, not trees, are the motive.

On one hand, you can’t really blame these senior-level decision makers. Their job is to sustain the business, not the environment. That argument can certainly be made, and the generation in power is simply lacking an intrinsic knack for sustainability that subsequent generations have. Environmental sustainabilty, at this level, means a couple of different things.

1. Internal: Some of these companies can make huuuuuge differences in the level of carbon emissions, etc. by curbing their consumption. Again, at the level of the average worker, the push for compact flourescents in the offices, for example, is environment related. The acceptance of that push at the upper-level is money related – We can save x amount of money by making the switch.

2. Products / Marketing: optimizing energy use for products is a real response to market demand I think. Companies are marketing the hell out of their “green” credentials, showing a serious trend in consumer demand. There is definitely no shift in the interest of businesses, they are simply responding to the market – business as usual. Anything internet related can be green. A phone is green – you don’t have to travel. Video-conferencing is green. Working from home is green, etc. But these trends pre-date the green phase, only the marketing has changed.

Interestingly, at neither the lower, or upper level does discussion of social justice exist (to my knowledge). Sure, large companies are doing a ton in the way of philanthropy – mostly indirectly – though they don’t involve those endeavors in discussions of sustainability. It seems that the ambiguously famous concept of “green” is able to exist in space so gray as to appease all parties. The disconnection between the grassroots, environmentally aware employee base and the economic interests of those above them provides enough space to house seemingly irreconcilable concepts – one cannot exist without the other. This is an interesting phenomenon, the outplay of Sustainable Development and the introduction of this “green” buzzword. Unfortunately, I think both parties are equally flawed. SD invovles all three tenets – none without the other.

5 Responses to “Sustainability v. Sustainability”

  1. 1 Michael
    August 22, 2008 at 3:01 am


    I think you bring up very salient points re: the translation of SD to the business context. Indeed, it is a complex issue and one that will continue to grow in relevance as we, as a society, (hopefully) recognize the limits to our growth. Sometimes in my most cynical moments, I wonder if (environmental and social) sustainability and the maximization of shareholder value (the “duty” of every organization) can even be reconcilable – and I have devoted myself to the academic pursuit of the very topic.

    Anytime a trend emerges, it becomes oversimplified to the point of distortion and eventually, meaninglessness – the reasons for this are varied, sundry, and really don’t have any relevance to the current discussion.
    SD is no exception this distortion. We, as the conscious citizenry, need to dispense accountability (hopefully in a vigilante-type fashion) to those firms that truly subscribe to the tenets of sustainability. One of the most effective means at our disposal is our decision to buy (or preferably, not to buy) the firm’s product. We all know this, and if we don’t, we should.

    Of course this vigilante economic justice is not possible without organizational transparency – luckily this is the province of the shareholder report in publicly-traded companies, and watchdog organizations in the both the privately and publicly held ones. It is also, again, the province of the educated and conscious citizenry.

    We do have to keep in mind however, that for a firm to practice sustainability, it must sustain itself. That is a firm must turn a profit and remain operable. The counter argument to this assertion, though, is how can an organization sustain itself in a deteriorating environment?

    There is so many issues to consider… and I can go on and on and on… but one more quick point to consider:

    Not every firm pursues sustainability for t same reasons. There is a whole stream of literature in management science examining this very concept. Fortunately, we have begun to see firms pursue sustainability BECAUSE OTHER FIRMS ARE DOING IT. Not only are they doing it, but they are meeting shareholder demands. And other firms have begun to follow suit for the sole fact that other firms are doing it. I think this, above all, is a perpetual source of hope.

    I’ll end it on that high note and hope to continue this conversation in the future.

  2. 2 Robyn
    August 22, 2008 at 3:05 am

    A response to my husband’s ramblings….

    Oh these twists and turns
    These knots that I cannot untie
    And grown together
    What can we do or say to make what we want appear
    Even when our words do match our movements
    They somehow disappear before they reach certain ears
    They dissipate like mist on a steamy hot morning
    They are nothing but smoke
    Visible- nothing in mid air
    It is amazing how we sift through life like flour and wheat berries
    Something is bound to get stuck in the sifter
    It is inevitable
    It is how the how occurs

    – Robyn Sheridan

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