The word “sustainability” doesn’t just refer to everything good. If it did, we wouldn’t need the word “sustainability” at all. We would just use the word “good.”
I’m a small-town philosopher who likes words to mean what they mean. That’s why I got cranky when I saw the new Global 100 ranking, which is ostensibly a sustainability ranking (see my blog post on it here.) Why cranky? Because over half of the criteria used to arrive at that ranking have nothing to do with what I—and, I suspect, most people—think of when they hear the word “sustainability.”
But let’s set aside the fact that this usage is potentially misleading. Words evolve, and maybe the public will catch up with the Global 100 in its broad understanding of the term “sustainability.” But does this new, revised meaning of the word make sense?
Let’s start with the word “sustainable.” Well, standard dictionary definitions suggest that it means something like, “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” OK, good. That’s a positive thing, right? But wait: No one cares about corporate sustainability in that sense, with the possible exception of certain narrow-minded shareholders. We want businesses that are more than merely capable of being maintained. We want businesses that are worthy of being maintained.
So sustainability needs some normative content. It needs some goodness baked in.
In this regard, the touchstone is the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission asserted that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And ever since then, at the very least, the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” have had very significant environmental overtones. OK, good. Environmental sustainability isn’t the only good thing in the world, but it’s definitely a good thing from a social point of view, embodying not just a respect for nature but also a sense of intergenerational justice.
But some people (including the people behind the Global 100) want to expand the term “sustainability” to include other, non-environmental dimensions. From a certain point of view, this makes sense: other things are required to allow a company to “sustain” operations. But then further problems arise.
Note that when we expand “sustainability” this way, a subtle bit of sleight-of-hand takes place. Previously, we were talking about business operations that were environmentally sustainable. Now, we’ve switched to sustainable organizations. What does it take to sustain an organization? Lots of things, and not all of them are good. And being sustainable isn’t, in itself, a good thing. The tobacco industry has lasted for centuries, leaving millions of dead bodies in its wake. Very, very sustainable. But bad.
As noted above, we don’t generally care whether companies can stay in business. We want them to merit staying in business. And if the companies on the Global 100 merit staying in business, why not just say so?
In the end, I guess my point really is that environmental sustainability is important all on its own, and doesn’t need to be fluffed up with issues like workplace safety or leadership diversity or CEO pay; and issues like workplace safety and leadership diversity and CEO pay are too important to stuff into the simple concept of sustainability.