So what is a sustainable business exactly? Surely we must know by now.
- Is it a green business?
- Is it a business that is good at environmental management? That follows an ISO standard?
- Is it a business that’s good at CSR? At accountability? With a good human rights record?
I have a more simple definition. A sustainable business is one that lasts for ever.
OK, you’ll jump on me now and say that simply lasting for ever isn’t the right definition. Some of the companies on the list of the oldest companies in the world aren’t really green and they may not be specifically concerned about their impact on human rights.
And they almost certainly don’t conform to ISO 14001.
But I believe that lasting for ever is an excellent aspiration for a business. No business (and no human) will ever achieve it. But it’s a really good goal.
It’s a good goal because to achieve it a business has to become really good at a number of things:
- Being a learning organisation. Fancy words that mean that a company develops and grows – not necessarily in size, but like a person, becoming wiser with age. Stronger perhaps, but stronger with compassion, not violence.
- Caring for the environment. If a business doesn’t care for the environment, then eventually the environment will hit back. Whether it’s fuel prices or raw materials – any business that is ultimately dependent on depleting these resources will eventually run out of them – or find itself uncompetitive.
- Caring for the people it employs. Businesses are people. Businesses can’t learn but people can. And if people aren’t cared for then ultimately they will walk or give less than they can.
- Caring for human rights more generally. If a business breaks this rule, sooner or later people including customers and investors will figure it out. Ignoring human rights is a violation so huge that most people will eventually, when faced by the facts, turn away. Without customers and investors no business can survive.
- Really understanding and fitting into the market. The market is all these things: customers, investors, people, resources. It’s more than that too – it’s the complex interactions between these things, the system that makes up the world we all live in. It’s the connections, the inter-dependencies, the limits, and the whole.
Understanding the market means understanding our world and our place in it. Understanding that if our goal is human sustainability then we need to address all the complex issues of poverty, war, greed, species destruction, resource depletion, climate change and so on. And find a way to really fit in.
Unless a business gets really good at these things it simply won’t last.
And neither will we.