A good place to start when talking about sustainability is to define it. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to people in your organisation? Too often, sustainability is used as a shorthand, without consideration for what it actually stands for.
The most widely used definition of sustainable development is the one coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission):
“forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
This is a good starting point. But for me it lacks the ‘wow’ factor, it sounds like it was written by committee. It is not going to inspire. Whereas the definition for sustainability from Forum for the Future is definitely more inspirational:
“A dynamic process which enables all people to realise their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways that simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life support systems.”
I like this definition because it makes explicit the fact that we are dependent on the earth, so we better look after it, whilst making the link to all people realising their potential – we (collectively) will have a better life if we (collectively) take care of the environment. There is an aspirational element rather than just ‘we should do this because we must’.
I had a go at writing my own definition, and this is what I arrived at:
“Sustainability is a balance between the financial, human, and environmental. It is about living your values and acting with integrity, responsibility and generosity. It is about being in a community of discussion, dialogue and action – because no person or company is an island and everything is interconnected.”
Ultimately, the definition of sustainability in your organisation needs to reflect the values of your organisation and your culture. But if we want to place sustainability centre stage in companies, then why not open up the debate to employees? Ask what it means to them, ask them what their vision of a sustainable future is. By engaging with employees on a level of personal values and having this conversation, this will begin to create a platform for organisations to shift to a mindset of sustainability that is truly embedded in the organisation.
What’s your definition of sustainability? Share it here.
I really have to applaud the exercise in etymology. As you touched on, our culture has a tendency of expediting or condensing information for release and distribution. As a result words like environmentalism, ecological, sustainability and efficiency have blurred in the public perception to mean the same thing when in fact, they have important differences.
Sustainability really is at the heart of these issues in my opinion. I like the premise of your definition but I think it may be lacking the concept of repeatability and “sustenance”. I may offer a definition like this:
Sustainability: A balance of interacting beings or ideas that achieve a constant net level of resource components as to operate and evolve indefinitely without strain or additional influx of energy.
Naturally this could represent, as you noted, people, communities, wildlife, businesses, etc. Good discussion–one more people should be having.
Thank you for your comment and for your definition – I do agree that the concept of sustenance is a valuable one.
Another piece which includes a definition of sustainability from an urban planner’s point of view:
The discussion continues:
Top 10 myths about sustainability – ‘sustainability, a concept which people have a hard time wrapping their minds about’
All the above definitions are very helpful. However I would like to add that the journey to sustainability has to be hugely creative. Thomas Berry’s definition is:
“To create an ecologically sustainable relationship between the human species and the planet. This is the great challenge of our times. If we fail this challenge, we literally fail in the entire evolutionary experiment of the human species and in the process will destroy much of the evolutionary development of the Cenozoic age of the last 60 million years since the demise of the dinosaurs, if not more.”
This relationship has to be forged by the people who already today exist on the planet. We need lots of innovation(s) and fast in many sectors of our lives – especially the business world.
Thanks for your comment. I totally share your view about the importance of creativity and taking action now. At the moment, we are living in an age when we are defined as producers and measurements of success are how much we produce. We need to change this around to an age of creativity, and see ourselves as creators not producers.
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To make explicitly clear that sustainability and sustainable development includes all main aspects of sustainability, thus Human Wellbeing and Environmental Wellbeing as goals and Economic Wellbeing as a safeguard to achieve these goals, I use the Brundtland definition, extended with a third sentence:
A sustainable society is a society
that meets the needs of the present generation,
that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.
Thanks for your comment – like your addition to the Brundtland definition.
sustainability, is the capability of any advancement or system to retain its features that make it function properly without damaging the chances or opportunities in the future.