What does sustainability mean in business?

September 3, 2020

Companies must consider more than profit and take responsibility for their actions.

What does sustainability mean for business?

Businesses have traditionally measured success primarily by profit. Sustainable businesses balance their bottom line with the needs of society and the planet. Businesses focused on sustainability commonly follow the triple bottom line (TBL) framework—planet first, people second, profits third. Simply put, a sustainable business produces its goods or services without harming people or the environment.

For a planet- and people-first company to consider more than profit, it has to take responsibility for the consequences of doing business. That includes every part of its value chain. For example, sourcing materials responsibly, limiting the use of fossil fuels, conserving energy and resources, and treating people fairly. Doing so protects resources for future generations and respects the Earth’s carrying capacity.

Why is sustainability in business important?

When a company bases its foundation on the triple bottom line, there’s also a potential payoff from investors who prioritize environmental, social, and governance criteria (ESG). Beyond positive financial benefits, ensuring your business is eco-friendly is crucial to maintaining a thriving, livable planet. 

According to Meaningful Brands, more than half of consumers believe brands can play a more critical role than the government in creating a better future. With just a decade left to steer the world away from runaway climate change, we must foster sustainability at scale. Without the support of the private sector, it will be impossible to address climate change. 

Making an impact 

Resource scarcity and increased regulation from greenhouse gas emissions have already impacted businesses in meaningful ways. While forward-thinking companies have already adopted ESG frameworks to help mitigate climate change risks, the external pressures are mounting. 

According to a 2019 Deloitte survey, business leaders feel the pressure from stakeholders to take climate change seriously. Consumers also exert pressure to preserve the environment—nearly two-thirds of Americans want companies to embrace planet-friendly practices. So far, over 1,100 companies worldwide have answered the call—a signal that the triple bottom line is poised for the mainstream. 

However, impact requires more than a pledge—action is necessary from businesses of every size. Large companies call on expensive consultants and employ in-house sustainability teams to create sustainability frameworks and reports. Because SMBs represent 90 percent of all businesses and employ half the global population, it’s critical that they too operate more sustainably.

While corporations can put significant resources behind their ESG efforts, their tooling and practices can feel out of reach for small and medium-sized businesses. SMBs have a speed, though. They can get buy-in and spin up innovative ways to create measurable impact much faster than it takes for larger companies to align stakeholders. 

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Key takeaways

• Sustainable businesses produce goods or services without harming people or the environment.

• More than half of consumers believe brands can play a more critical role than the government in creating a better future.

• Nearly two-thirds of Americans want companies to embrace planet-friendly practices.