You probably see the words “sustainable” and “green” as synonyms… and we often present them that way. This helps provide a definition of the concept of sustainability that’s easily understood among the broader public… but it also creates the risk of undermining the complexities of the concept.
One could argue that’s exactly what’s happened in terms of business sustainability: many companies get the notion that “green” is just one element of a broader set of strategies designed to create businesses that foster responsibility towards all stakeholders; others, however, see “green” as a vague, feel-good concept ripe for exploitation. Obviously, examples of the latter are a bit disheartening for those of us communicating broader business sustainability, as the former is much more likely to create long-term value… for shareholders as well as the environment and the general welfare.
Businessman and professor Jonathan T. Scott has been teaching and consulting on genuine business sustainability for years… and has now brought his knowledge and experience together in The Sustainable Business, a free ebook published and distributed by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD). Reviewed and edited by Hunter Lovins and Walter Stahel, Scott’s (relatively) short book integrates a wide range of concepts, insights, and facts, and makes a compelling case for sustainability as a major concern for single bottom line companies.
Business sustainability: the concept that works for profit-driven companies
In his introduction, Scott starts off almost immediately with the claim that “focusing only on the environmental aspects of sustainability is both shortsighted and partial — not unlike claiming that good health is solely about vegetables.” Rather, the push for business sustainability should focus on issues that make concrete sense to almost any executive or manager: “From a business viewpoint it can be argued that sustainability is about reducing expenses – including future expenses – in every conceivable form so as to facilitate longevity and competitiveness.”
What does that mean in terms of a more common understanding of sustainability? In short, minimizing, or even eliminating, waste.
No doubt you’ve heard that one before: From Natural Capitalism to Confessions of a Radical Industrialist to The Truth about Green Business, the idea that waste (or “non-product”) doesn’t just represent an environmental evil, but also a squandering of financial resources. Scott brings fresh examples and data to this argument, as well as laying out a number of processes for addressing business acceptance of waste… not just in terms of physical materials and energy and resource consumption, but also wasting human potential within an organization.
Adopting Business Sustainability: A Matter of Education
While Scott comes to this book with a wide variety of professional experiences, his role as a teacher at several European universities comes through clearly throughout The Sustainable Business. Not only does he address the current state of business education (he’s not crazy about it), and refer often to student projects aimed at helping companies adopt more sustainable practices, but he takes the tone of an educator throughout. He’s created a heuristic for laying out business sustainability to students and clients (the 7-P model, around which the book is organized), chooses apt examples, and spends a good number of pages on the hurdles (institutional and psychological) that proponents of sustainability will encounter in the corporate sector. He also demonstrates a clear understanding of all of his “students,” and the patience needed for presenting challenging ideas to people new to them… and to the different ways of thinking they involve.
Making Sustainable Business Thinking Freely Available
In addition to the content, The Sustainable Business is unique in its method of distribution: a free PDF which has already been distributed to over 1.3 million people, and is being translated into Mandarin (which means the potential for millions more copies distributed). One of Scott’s students, Piotr Jedrzejuk (a creator of the Sustainable Business Performance site) has told me that a longer version of the book is available… but, at just over 150 pages, this version provides a lot of practical, thoughtful information in a relatively small package.
While those of you well-versed in sustainable business may find that much of the subject matter of the book has been covered in earlier works, The Sustainable Business strikes me as a fine introduction to the concept, with a number of topics covered that will give more experienced sustainable business people some ideas to chew on. One leaves it hoping that it represents the future of business education… our economic and environmental health could use a large shot of this kind of thinking.
UPDATE: Zachary Shahan has published a review of The Sustainable Business at Earth & Industry.
New to sustainable business thinking? We’ve got some of the classic books on the subject offered in the Green Choices product comparison engine, including The Ecology of Commerce, Mid-Course Correction, and The Natural Step for Business.
William McDonough takes it one step further with Triple Top Line. In Cradle to Cradle he proposes moving accountability to beginning of design process. You can see him on TED. He makes me have great hope for future!
Scotts ideas and strategies are spot on. He describes the keys to unlocking value in organizations through implementing sustainability initiatives, but in a carefully crafted manner. Organizations often ‘overreach’ beyond their human or financial capacities. This can lead to failure and loss of enthusiasm. I treat Scotts book, its principles and some thoughts for implementing sucessful, scalable sustainability initiatives at:
Thanks for bringing this article to my attention last summer. Dave