How do You Define Sustainability?

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  • #130305

    Shannon Kennedy

    SAP has raised the bar when it comes to making companies more sustainable. In fact, the company was recently commended for it’s sustainability efforts. SAP has reduced it’s carbon footprint and now wants to make itself even more environmentally aware. What does sustainability mean to you? What are some important best practices for being sustainable?

    What Does Sustainability Really Mean?

    It is not an easy question. Many reference one of the original and most lasting definitions, which emerged from the 1987 Brundtland Commission of the United Nations. It states that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    We challenged ourselves to come up with a definition that puts sustainability more into a business perspective and ask for your feedback and thoughts. By our definition, sustainability means that we strive to create a better run world where organizations balance short- and long-term profitability, and holistically manage economic, environmental and social risks and opportunities.

    But what lies behind this language? As we work toward our vision of a better run world, what do organizations face as they navigate the real world? How exactly can sustainability move them forward?

    When we talk of balancing short and long-term profitability, we are responding to the enormous pressures on companies and those who run them to meet short-term expectations for driving growth and profits. We believe that short-term thinking alone will only take organizations so far – and in fact can bring negative if not catastrophic results. For example, when short term profitability is more important than safety, the unintendend outcome may be an industrial accident with large scale economic, environmental and social consequences. On the other side, investments in certain environmental or social projects – such as supporting entrepreneurs in the developing world – may take time to bring a return. In a better run world, our vision is that companies will not focus exclusively on short-term thinking, and they will not do so at the expense of long-term considerations.

    The next part of our definition talks about the need to holistically manage economic, environmental and social issues.

    What we mean is that in the past, organizations got away with regarding the environment or communities in which they operate as externalities, as elements of society that were separate from their own priorities and performance. This is no longer the case. In a wireless, connected society, information travels globally and at light speed. As they gain a heightened sense of stewardship, people demand transparency and action from businesses around the world. For example, if human rights are violated in a company’s supply chain, its brand could be irreparably damaged. If a business utilizes vast quantities of water to make its product, with no regard to ensuring greater efficiency, its very existence could be threatened by the depletion of natural resources.

    In short, people and organizations cannot operate as if environmental and social realities are separate from their own fortunes and future. Strong communities and a healthy ecosystem support thriving businesses.

    Finally, we speak of managing both risks and opportunities. For too long, businesses have viewed sustainability as a cost factor and a risk to be managed. We see it equally as an opportunity to be seized. Yes, there is risk inherent in the many challenges the world faces. But to us, this reality presents a different kind of challenge: to innovate as we work to create new efficiencies and open up new markets by creating economic opportunity for all people. Sustainability enables businesses to act in society’s interests and their own interests at the same time. This way of thinking is a mindset shift, and mindset shifts lie at the heart of innovation.

    While our definition of sustainability helps guide our company’s vision and strategy, it is just one approach to a topic that is open to many interpretations and applications. We welcome your feedback on our thinking and are eager to hear yours. How do you define sustainability, and what led you to that definition? We also invite you to explore the pages of this report, to see how we are working to turn our definition into practical ideas that will help our customers, the environment, and people and communities throughout the world.

    Originally posted by SAP


    SAP is the world’s leading provider of business software offering applications and services that enable companies of all sizes and in more than 26 industries to become best-run businesses. SAP is a proud partner of GovLoop. Check out SAP on Facebook and Twitter.

  • #130307


    Great, thought provoking post.

    We do need to think more about sustainability (across the board).

    I like the simple definition provided in1987 Brundtland Commission of the United Nations – “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    I think your definition has too many words and words like “holistically” worry me! as it is not common, everyday language.

    I work in the Local Government (Municipalities) area with several local government authorities (having worked in this environment for the past 5 years). This might not sound like a long time but it has been a life-time of fun and experience.

    I got into local government after several reports on local government infrastructure indicated that most councils in Australia (some 450+) are not “sustainable”. There has been a strong push in government to understand sustainability and ensure councils are moving in the right direction. There is a long way to go and as I view global discussions, Australia is not the only country in dire straits. At least we acknowledge the problem and have started on the education and reform process.

    I generally define sustainability (in the local government context – where the “rubber hits the road”) as;

    Our ability to continue to deliver services (through products and infrastructure) that will meet current and future community needs for an acceptable life-style while ensuring social and environmental well-being.

    Thank you for initiating this discussion. I hope it gets good coverage as it is an important topic for everyone to consider (how they can contribute).

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