Where once ‘sustainability’ had a very specific focus on the environment and supply chains, its widening meaning now carries implications for everything about how a business operates.
‘Sustainable’, like ‘green’ was a term that was easy to bandy around and a little harder to nail down. A change in packaging here, sign up to the rainforest alliance there, publish a report and suddenly you were a ‘sustainable’ business.
But sustainability is not what it once was. And that’s down to the changing contract between people and businesses — a changing contract whose terms aren’t quite clear, but that is clearly radically different.
Sustainability is becoming much more about the survival of your business than the planet it’s based on.
Sustainability now means having a supply chain that doesn’t carry such a dreadful human cost it could wipe out your producers — and your product. (Cocoa)
Sustainability means not inflicting shorter, poorer, unhealthier lives on your customers. (McDonalds, Coke)
Sustainability means not forcing your suppliers out of business. (Tesco)
Sustainability means not having such a poor reputation that your share price keeps falling even though your profits keep rising. (Sports Direct)
And increasingly, sustainability means being able to attract the talented graduates who’ll keep your company competitive for the next generation. Which necessitates a) not being having a toxic reputation and b) offering them meaning beyond salary.
All of which calls for bigger changes than a reorganisation of the supply chain or an environmental audit. Indeed, those are hygiene factors now.
It calls for a long hard look at your culture, at values and behaviours, at reputation. It calls for a look at why you exist and what you have to say about it.
Sustainability is no longer limited to supply chains. Which means it’s no longer limited to a department.
It’s everyone’s job now — if they want to have one.