Monday, October 23, 2006

What is "Sustainable Business?"

An intriguing entry from Barb Haig posed this question on Johnson Controls' blog. Think about it... isn't "sustainability" relative to a starting point of some kind? This concept implicitly recognizes that things change over time, right? So what makes the starting point ideal? How about this: "Sustainable business" is a strategy for profit-seeking entities to minimize the risks (and maximize the profits) related to the environmental, health, and social consequences of business operations.



At 10:39 AM, Blogger Sean Casten said...

Good question, but I'm not sure I like the answer. My great concern with the whole "sustainability" movement has been that the term is defined by marketers rather than quantiatively, and it shares many of the same problems as the social-responsibility movement of a few years back. Is Philip Morris socially responsible (most say no, because they don't like cigarettes). How about Kraft? (many say yes, because they like food). Where does that leave Altria that owns both? What is the magic ratio between good and bad that makes a business socially responsible?

Similarly, unless "sustainability" can be quantified, it runs the risk of being cheapened by those who can use it without defining terms. Is a fuel cell running on clean hydrogen "sustainable", without first defining where the hydrogen came from? How about if the fuel cell was classified as renewable under a state RPS? Or, to take the inverse of the question, what if a business generates all their power from sustainably harvested biomass but makes it in Massachusetts where the biomass doesn't qualify as "renewable" unless it's gasified?

Bottom line is that the term needs to be either quantified or abandoned for one that can be.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Christopher Russell said...

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At 6:39 PM, Blogger Christopher Russell said...


Thanks for weighing in. You pose an interesting point. Does the "sustainable business" concept accrue to a company, or rather, to any of its discrete activities? There's another twist: does the term apply to the way a product is manufactured, or to the way it is used? Or both? At best, sustainability may be a relative term, not one that works well with absolute measures. In other words, is a suitably "sustainable" product merely less noxious than existing alternatives?


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