People often ask “what is sustainability?” It means maintaining the quality or condition of something into the future. But  this begs the question – “what is it we are trying to sustain?”

Economists may focus on maintaining economic growth and place a high value on GDP and jobs. Conservationists may desire to maintain environmental quality and place a high value on species and ecosystem biodiversity.  Social justice advocates may desire to maintain social systems and place a high value on human rights, equality and the eradication of poverty. So in recent years the word “sustainability” has come to mean a basic level of economic AND social AND environmental sustainability.

What does this mean for Australian businesses?

Business owners may desire to sustain an income to retirement, pass a viable business onto family members or protect shareholders’ investments and value. So it follows that, as a minimum, businesses must be economically sustainable to simply survive.

But businesses that embrace social sustainability tend to thrive. They maintain mutually beneficial relationships with employees, contractors, suppliers, customers and the local community. These relationships often have the financial benefit of increasing sales and the environmental benefit of a green supply chain. They create a positive company profile and customer and community support.

Businesses that embrace environmental sustainability  tend to thrive even more. They minimise their use of resources such as energy, raw materials and water.  They eliminate or reduce the amount of hazardous materials, emissions and waste. They in turn, reap financial benefits from reducing input costs and waste disposal fees through to eliminating the high cost of clean up, lost time, rehabilitation, fines, legal fees and customer backlash.

Increasingly business owners and shareholders are taking a broader view of risks by considering the effect that a business may have on the environment and people.   They aim to continually improve their performance in order to thrive in today’s complex and demanding world.