‘Sustainability’ is one of the world's overused buzzwords, but often it is not used appropriately which limits its ability to make for genuine change and its credibility is lost. The true definition of sustainability according to the United Nations is
‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
It acknowledges that the resources and materials we currently use are finite and if we continue to consume at the rate we do, future generations and even our generation will suffer. If harmful processes are maintained with no change the damage to our planet will be irreversible, but the key to sustainability is making these changes without decreasing the current quality of life.
Sustainability relates to 4 distinct areas, known as the pillars of sustainability. In order for businesses and communities to be considered sustainable they have to look at all four of these aspects.
Social sustainability aims to social capital by investing and creating services that makeup the frameworks of our society. It takes into account a large view of the world such as whole communities and cultures, it emphasizes preserving future generations and recognising that our current actions have an impact on others and also our environment. Social sustainability focuses on improving social quality and institutions acting towards social sustainability usually focus on contributing to creating healthier, fairer and more liveable communities with things such as equality and access to universal human rights. Social sustainability is often encouraged by laws and regulations such as business and rights policies.
This focuses on maintaining and improving human capital within society, it focuses on the importance of the people involved both directly and indirectly in the production of goods or provision of services. Investments in areas such as health, education and welfare all fall under this umbrella of human sustainability. It is crucial for businesses as without having loyal and happy employees long term sustainable growth cannot be achieved. Human sustainability ensures that any communities affected by the businesses actions, for example communities affected by the methods used by large scale corporations to source raw materials, are looked after, with their well being supported.
Economic sustainability recognises that a business has to be profitable in order to survive, and refers to the efficient use of assets to maintain company profitability over long periods of time. Whilst long term economic growth is crucial the key word of this pillar (and the other 3 too) is sustainability which means that this economic growth needs to be done without negatively impacting social and environmental aspects of society. The University of Mary Washington described it as “practices that support long-term economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community.”
This aims to improve human lives by preserving the environment and natural capital such as land, water, air, minerals etc. A business can only be defined as environmentally sustainable when they ensure that the needs of the population are met without comprising the long term sustainability of the environment and the needs of future generations. All businesses, communities and individuals seeking to act under the environmental sustainability pillar must interact conscientiously with the environment to avoid destruction or depletion of natural resources. The ultimate goal is to do this whilst meeting the needs of the current population. Examples of environmental sustainability include switching your businesses energy source to a renewable one such as solar, wind or water.
For complete sustainability to be achieved business must incorporate all of these areas into their processes, with the main goal of not compromising the needs of the future to meet the needs of the present. Businesses who do not align with the sustainability pillars will fall behind in the competitive world of sustainable businesses.
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