What is sustainability? Prior to 2018, I naively viewed the term as a buzz word meaning something to do with being “green”. Solar, wind, recycle, organic, all natural, compostable, sustainability etc all representing a “green” movement. I lumped them all into one theme out of ease and laziness. I viewed the term as something that was either too large to act upon or too small to consider. My perspective has changed.
Generally defined, sustainability is “the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”. In researching specifics for applicability, the term seems to have no consensus or actionable definition. To some, sustainability is narrowly defined in environmental terms alone. To others, sustainability is a means to insuring the right to do business, a more ethical means to operate, and an increasingly relevant source of new business opportunities. To still others, sustainability is viewed as an outdated term that is trending toward adaptability. With changes already occurring, there is a thought that we will all need to “adapt” more so than “sustain” as we move forward. With varied perspectives, it seems it is up to each company and person to define sustainability as it applies to the specific situation under the umbrella of the larger context. Trips to Brussels Belgium and Harvard University in 2018 along with reading perspectives from books, articles and reports helped me better define our company’s sustainability journey. Some key takeaways from 2018:
Sustainability has many forms. Harvard Executive Leadership on Sustainability opened my eyes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) the United Nations (UN) put out in 2015. The UN defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The 17 UN SDG’s dive deeper into the definition. The 17 are broad and each has their own targets to achieve. A listing of the SDGs is shown below. Details of each can be found at www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/. Each nation is graded periodically on progress. Updates can be found at http://sdgindex.org/. Different SDG’s have different levels of importance per nation and per industry. To find the SDG’s that applies most directly to each country and/or each industry, go to https://dm.pwc.com/SDGSelector.
Sustainability is a long term movement . My trip to Brussels Belgium for a conference in Sept 2018 on “Plastics Packaging and the EU Plastic Strategy” along with literature put out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org) exposed me to the idea that a number of stakeholders are needed to achieve a more sustainable future. Governments, education, businesses, the media and non-government organizations need to interact to establish wide-spread literacy on the subject and push for a path to a better future. The conference involved interactions by people from various countries, UN representatives, businesses, and governments. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation push towards a more circular economy expresses the need for multiple organizations within a supply and consumption stream to interact to eliminate waste, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. No one entity can do it alone. We are all part of a larger movement in actively engaging in sustainability. It takes time for stakeholders to align for greater action.
Sustainability can be good business. A year back, a business where sustainability is engrained into a company’s structure seemed to be overly idealistic. Now, I see the value. Changing energy use over time to renewables, offering compostable and recycled content materials to clients, promoting our use of water based inks, committing to less waste within our production processes and recycling components to our products are examples of good business propositions while also being more sustainable. Pursuing initiatives that are good business and good for sustainability promotes a healthy company and environment. A sustainable model also introduces a larger purpose for all employees to rally around. By doing good for the environment, we energize our employees with a larger sense of purpose.
Authentic sustainability requires action and is achievable in our company thru the various forms sustainability can take. Sustainability is a movement we are excited to be a part of as it includes a group effort of customer, vendors, educators, governments, etc. to make it happen. Sustainability can lead us to long-term profits if the form it takes within our company is good business.
This is just the start to defining sustainability for us. I know enough to not think of the issue as too large and be plagued by inaction. I know enough to not think of the issue as too small to consider knowing the effects of inaction Most important is the sense that I know we can make a difference.
Thanks for reading! Trent Romer
Some key references that helped formulate the above:
- Ellen Macarthur Foundation (www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)
- UN Sustainable Development Goals ( www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals)
- “Killing Sustainability” by Lawrence Heim (don’t let the name be miss-leading)
- Harvard University Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership (eesl.chge.hsph.harvard.edu)
- European Plastics Converters (www.plasticsconverters.eu)