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Is it time to deconstruct sustainability?

In a recent blog, we discussed how the nature of the sustainability agenda—at least in so far as buyers of professional services are concerned—has evolved over time. What started out as an agenda typically driven by either ethical or compliance considerations eventually gave way to one rooted in a genuine sense of material risk. Today’s clients understand that to fail to take questions of sustainability seriously is to seriously jeopardise the long-term health of their organisations. And in the near future, we may see a further evolution take place as clients start to appreciate the scale of the opportunities—the new business models and potential revenue streams—made possible by the transition to a more sustainable economy.

But as a consequence of this shift, it has become increasingly easy for different stakeholders to talk past one another when discussing sustainability-related issues. After all, our reasons for caring about any given concept inevitably have an impact on how we define that concept. At a root level, there may be broad agreement about how to define sustainability: Most people who know anything about the topic will point to the definition developed by the UN’s Brundtland Commission in 1987 of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. But as soon as you try to move past that high-level definition and talk about what that means on a practical level, you rapidly start to encounter differing, sometimes even contradictory, interpretations. So, if consultants want to have truly productive conversations about sustainability, it’s important that they invest time and energy up front into understanding how, exactly, the client is using the term.

A big part of the problem here is that the notion of a “sustainable business” can mean one of two very different things, depending on the context it is being used. On the one hand, we might choose to think of a sustainable business as one likely to be around for many generations to come; one that stands a good chance of withstanding the seismic societal, political, and environmental changes that currently loom over us. But alternatively, we could measure the sustainability of an organisation not by considering its own likely longevity, but instead by asking whether or not it’s operations have a positive impact on different stakeholders: its customers, its employees, the wider public, and so on. While these two different ideas do often go hand in hand, they can just as easily come apart. A drinks manufacturer, for example, might have a “sustainable” business model, even while ignoring its responsibilities to the health of its customers.

The solution to this ambiguity, in our view, is for consultants to develop definitional frameworks that allow them to deconstruct the concept of sustainability into its constituent parts. Instead of broad conversations where everyone is speaking their own language, the aim should be to create space for more precise, more fruitful discussions.

And any effective framework for talking about sustainability will need to recognise that, at its core, the topic is not just about a relationship between, on one side, client organisations and, on the other, society and the planet. Rather, it is about two separate relationships that flow in parallel to one another and in opposite directions. Yes, we have to consider our responsibilities to the planet, and the impact that our actions have on the wider world—but we also have to consider our dependencies, how effective stewardship of natural and human resources can contribute to organisational resilience.

Sustainability, properly understood, is the sum total of these two relationships: responsibility, and resilience. What we give, and what we get back. Consultants who want to position themselves as sustainability leaders will need the ability to talk to clients about either of these two relationships individually, or both at once, depending on the context. Conversations that take place within that framework—i.e. conversations where everyone involved has an understanding of what’s really being discussed—are, at the end of the day, simply going to be more productive for everyone involved. And once everyone’s talking about the same thing, then the real work can begin.