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Apr 14, 2011 Cynthia Figge

What Is Sustainability, Really?

By Cynthia Figge


442225983_e4cc869593 At a recent sustainability conference, I spoke with the COO of a major manufacturing company who remarked that his company would not publish a sustainability report given the lack of specificity of the term, its implied breadth and seeming non-attainability. Instead, his company is focused on metrics for integrating their environmental work into their core business strategy and publishing an “environmental report”. I’ve heard this sentiment before (for the past 15 years). Many companies struggle with the challenge of defining sustainability precisely enough to drive the collection of metrics, and a shared accountability for “hitting the numbers.”


What is a clear definition of the term “sustainability”? There is the Merriam Webster definition (“of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods”) and the succinct sentence on Wikipedia (“the capacity to endure”). Wikipedia also adds “For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.” 


Perhaps the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, is that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, published on March 20, 1987-- “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


My consulting firm, EKOS International, defines sustainability as economic development that creates value for customers, shareholders, stakeholders, and society by designing and operating business in a way that aligns with ecosystems, in service of human prosperity, today and in the future.


Screen shot 2011-04-14 at 10.21.19 AM Although these definitions may not be precise, I believe that they are mental models which can transform thinking. EKOS was the first consultancy to draw the definition of big “S” as sustainability with three overlapping circles of ecological capital, human capital, and financial or manufactured capital whereby sustainability is achieved by optimizing business operations at the nexus of these systems. The importance of this definition is not its precision, but  the breakthrough idea that sustainability is not a trade-off of competing systems, or three bottom lines, but rather the true integration of the natural (N or ecosystem), human (H or social) and manufactured (M or industrial) systems.


For some people, sustainability primarily refers to the environment. For others it’s all encompassing,  like the term CSR (corporate social responsibility). As I’ve written before, the trend seems to be using CSR and sustainability interchangeably.


Each company should go through the process of defining sustainability for its own firm, because the mental model drives the work necessary to achieve the goal of a sustainable company, industrial system, and a sustainable world. 



Cynthia Figge, Cofounder and COO of CSRHUB is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Cynthia has worked with major organizations including BNSF, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow Jones, and REI to help craft sustainability strategy integrated with business. She was an Officer of LIN Broadcasting/McCaw Cellular leading new services development, and started a new “Greenfield” mill with Weyerhaeuser. She serves as Advisor to media and technology companies, and served as President of the Board of Sustainable Seattle. Cynthia has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Cynthia is based in the Seattle area.

Inset photo courtesy of loop_oh.

Published by Cynthia Figge April 14, 2011