What Really is Sustainability? – Ask 10 different people to define sustainability and you may get a dozen definitions.

Keith Cox Change, Sustainability, Values

The term sustainability is a broad concept, that even today with all the attention it is getting, can be ambiguously defined. For the average business leader and consumer the term is so convoluted it makes it difficult for individuals to deliver informed decisions.
To complicate matters, many organizations in the traditional business world have resorted to “greenwashing,” or simply promoting sustainability with no action, which in effect has rendered the term meaningless. Others simply view sustainability as an auditing movement or a self imposed tax that hinders competitiveness.While some business leaders view sustainability as means to a more profitable end and therefore a plausible idea, pioneering leaders I have spoken with understand it is much more than that. In fact, most of these leaders described it as a creed, a purpose, and a way of life focused on changing the human behavior of society.At the same time, these leaders point out that there are no normative definitions that are truly applicable. They explained that sustainability is context specific with each definition varying depending on: the type of organization, the industry, geography, the defined business purpose, and the organization’s values and beliefs. As Mary Houghton of ShoreBank illustrated, “We spent five years understanding what sustainability meant in the 
We are trying now to figure out how financial services relates to the environmental justice movement.” Likewise, Seth Goldman of Honest Tea offered this explanation:
“The way that we look at it is [as] really just a process of asking questions about what you’re doing and thinking about what are your responsibilities to the environment, to the communities immediately around you, and to those far away, the ones that are connected to your suppliers… it’s being honest, or trying to be honest with yourself and with your stakeholders about your ability to ask the questions… and then from there, you know, to answer them, with integrity, and to feel like you’re addressing the question.”
So based on what I have learned from my research I will offer this definition. Sustainability can be broadly be defined as corporations engaging in a process of self-analysis in order to identify opportunities and improvements that continually push the organization to act/operate responsibly on multiple, simultaneous levels – responsible for their entire “footprint,” social and environmental. In more specific terms, this definition translates to action-oriented principles such as: always question processes, activities and actions looking for greener ways to work; challenge conventional wisdom; act in a compassionate way that allows others to live prosperous lives; support fair trade; be honest and transparent to all stakeholders; clean up your own mess; create wealth for everyone, not just shareholders; respect and lift up those that work with and for you; transcend the bottom line myopia; vitalize the local community and look out for the children; produce quality products people need; protect our natural resources and use them sparingly; and invest in education and human rights.In summary, the increased focus on sustainability is a major differentiator for the “green organization.” Progressive leaders surveyed all conveyed their understanding that this way of being is a complicated and risky proposition that opens the organization’s doors to new language, processes, and relationships that previously were never considered. As George Siemon of Organic Valley eluded it is a revolution of the “golden rule” where in the long run no one wins unless everyone wins.
For more details on the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, visit our web site, www.cvdl.org.
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