Excerpt — Introduction: What is Sustainability?
The centerpiece of The Triple Bottom Line is the concept of sustainability. The term originated around a growing awareness, in the 1980s, that nations had to find ways to grow their economies without destroying the environment or sacrificing the well-being of future generations. Sustainability has since become a buzzword for an array of social and environmental causes, and in the business world it denotes a powerful and defining idea: a sustainable corporation is one that creates profit for its shareholders while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those with whom it interacts. It operates so that its business interests and the interests of the environment and society intersect. And as we show in the book, a sustainable business stands an excellent chance of being more successful tomorrow than it is today, and remaining successful, not just for months or even years, but for decades or generations.
Sustainable organizations and societies generate and live off interest rather than depleting their capital. Capital, in this context, includes natural resources, such as water, air, sources of energy, and foodstuffs. It also includes human and social assets — from worker commitment to community support — as well as economic resources, such as a license to operate, a receptive marketplace, and legal and economic infrastructure. A company can spend down its capital for a while, but generally not for long. A firm that honors the principles of sustainability, by contrast, is built to last.
Sustainability in practice can be seen as the art of doing business in an interdependent world. Sustainability in the broadest sense is all about interdependence, which takes several forms.
Sustainability respects the interdependence of living beings on one another and on their natural environment. Sustainability means operating a business in a way that causes minimal harm to living creatures and that does not deplete but rather restores and enriches the environment. Sustainability also respects the interdependence of various elements in society on one another and on the social fabric. Sustainability means operating a business in a way that acknowledges the needs and interests of other parties (community groups, educational and religious institutions, the workforce, the public) and that does not fray but rather reinforces the network of relationships that ties them all together.
Sustainability also respects the interdependence of differing aspects of human existence. Economic growth and financial success are important and provide significant benefits to individuals and society as a whole. But other human values are also important, including family life, intellectual growth, artistic expression, and moral and spiritual development. Sustainability means operating a business so as to grow and earn profit while recognizing and supporting the economic and noneconomic aspirations of people both inside and outside the organization on whom the corporation depends.
The only way to succeed in today's interdependent world is to embrace sustainability. Doing so requires companies to identify a wide range of stakeholders to whom they may be accountable, develop open relationships with them, and find ways to work with them for mutual benefit. In the long run, this will create more profit for the company and more social, economic, and environmental prosperity for society.