Sustainability Means More Than Green

June 25, 2014


Mike Guggenheimer, President & CEO of RSC Bio Solutions

Most of the accepted definitions of sustainability typically refer to the triple bottom line: efforts that support profitability, environmental, and human or social goals. For an organization to support initiatives that address social and environmental challenges, they also must build a business model that is durable and sustainably profitable. I have often been heard saying that green is the color of money, since there are many emerging technologies that are both environmentally conscious and renewable and deliver real value to businesses. Makes sense, right?

Despite this generally accepted definition of sustainability, I believe the word sustainability is becoming too attached to the environmental aspect of the triple bottom line—a proxy for “green,” if you will. This hit home for me this week as I was meeting with a VP of Marketing at a Fortune 200 company with a huge sustainability effort. They have made some real progress, and it truly is part of their brand ethos. As we were talking he said that he believes sustainability as a buzzword is waning and wondered out loud what was next.

As I reflect on this question and the company’s brand positioning, I realize he is saying green isn’t as new and different any more. In a way, this is a good thing. More and more companies are adopting broad sustainability initiatives as a fundamental business pillar, like quality systems in the 1990s. This bodes well for our long term ability to attack climate change, food dislocation, water shortages and other global challenges. On the other hand, I am concerned that we are losing sight of the real, multi-faceted definition of sustainability. The three pieces need go together to develop a true sustainability program, rather than an environmental program being presented as one. For example, a sustainably profitable business model is great, but if we destroy our environment and ignore social challenges we won’t have a marketplace. Likewise, we can do all the good we want for the environmental and social issues, but if we don’t have a durable value proposition we won’t be doing good for very long.

The other problem with sustainability becoming synonymous with only the environmental aspects is that it creates a communication problem. Green is polarizing. Some assume green means costs more and doesn’t work as well…that it’s only for tree huggers and college campuses, not big equipment or industry. Sustainability should imply value across multiple horizons. A sustainable investment should have a business ROI and an environmental or social ROI. As an industry we need to do better at explaining that goals founded in people, profit and planet can and do coexist.

I’ll have another post next week where I share my thoughts on what is the hot topic, if it isn’t “green.”

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