On operating a business sustainably

Sustainability, the triple bottom line, and your business

There’s an unstoppable force in the business world today: sustainability. The concept’s been around a while – since at least the 1700s when it was used in a German tract about forestry. It promoted the idea that resources should be taken from forests no faster than it would take to regenerate them.

Relatively speaking, sustainability has only recently become a widespread movement. First used in the modern sense in the 1980s, the theory identifies three avenues of concern: planet, people, and profit. The planet represents the environment; people represent society; profit represents the economy.

Sustainability seeks to guarantee that future generations will have what they need to live the good life while ensuring a respectable living standard for people today. Institutions, organizations, businesses, and individuals are all working toward a more sustainable lifestyle. But need you as an entrepreneur be all that concerned with it? And how does it affect your business anyway?

You may have heard that to successfully run a business in today’s marketplace, you should not simply be concerned with your bottom line; you should satisfy the triple bottom line. And that’s where the three Ps of sustainability come in: the planet, all of Earth’s people, and your profit.

Sustainability = Planet, People, and Profit

The three types of sustainability

Environmentalists, scientists, and many individuals today share a concern that human activity is likely responsible for climate change.

Restoring natural ecosystems such as the forested lands along the Amazon, recycling trash, and cleaning up or maintaining soil and groundwater are a few components of environmental sustainability. The use of wind and solar energy, water conservation, crop rotation, and the development of green spaces all contribute to the creation of a sustainable environment.

Social sustainability happens when human rights are upheld; working conditions are safe and workers are well taken care of; suitable living conditions, food, and health services are available to all; and diversity is celebrated.

Economic sustainability occurs when fiscal growth takes place without negatively impacting society and the environment; and when adequate water, energy, and food are available to all.

US federal policy in the sustainability crusade: “… humans and nature can exist in productive harmony”

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was the first important environmental law in the US. Created in 1969 and made law in 1970, NEPA established the federal government's commitment to sustainability, declaring it a national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Under NEPA, federal agencies are required to examine how proposed agency actions will affect the environment. Title I of the act establishes the Declaration of National Environmental Policy, which requires the government to use workable solutions to ensure that people harmoniously coexist with nature. That means federal agencies must make a careful examination of all governmental actions that will affect the environment in a significant way.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established in 1970 to protect the health of people and the environment, offers technical and scientific assistance to other federal agencies to safeguard people’s health and the environment. To those ends, the EPA seeks the protection and conservation of natural resources through programs designed to protect human health and the environment.

The business community’s answer: the triple bottom line

To create and maintain a sustainable economy, businesses need to align themselves with the goal of achieving a healthy ecosystem where adequate water, clean air, and fertile land are readily available to everyone. Firms must be just in their dealings with citizens, their neighbors, and the world.

In the corporate world, concern for the environment, people their actions affects, and the economy boil down to the business model of the triple bottom line; that is, the emphasis on three factors at once: people, planet, and profits. Firms that successfully incorporate all three are said to be green – they operate sustainably.

As a business person, you are charged to obey environmental laws and regulations to avoid being subject to legal actions. Some activities, whether they be inadvertent or not, that might incur federal wrath include damaging water supplies, causing air pollution, contaminating soil, and negatively impacting endangered species or ecosystems. But it’s not only adherence to legal regulations that entrepreneurs should be concerned with – popular sentiment today dictates that businesses show an alignment with sustainability principles. Simply put, increasing numbers of consumers are taking their business to firms that operate in environmentally and socially sustainable ways.

Well-known businesses operating sustainably

The corporate world demonstrates sustainable operations many times over. According to the list “2021 Global 100 ranking” compiled by Corporate Knights, https://www.corporateknights.com/reports/2021-global-100/2021-global-100-ranking-16115328/ several well-known companies make the grade:

  • McCormick and Company (USA) • Cisco Systems (USA)
  • Hewlett Packard (USA)
  • Konica Minolta Inc. (Japan)
  • Intel Corporation (USA)
  • Accenture PLC (Ireland)
  • Xerox Holdings Corporation (USA)
  • Adidas AG (Germany)
  • Unilever (UK)
  • AstraZeneca (UK)
  • Tesla Inc. (USA)

Why your business should be concerned with sustainability

Taking your business into the green not only can increase customer loyalty to your brand, it can also help you save money. If you reduce your carbon footprint by substituting solar or wind power for fossil fuels, for example, you can save money. Employees with a concern for sustainability are more likely to remain with a company with practices that adhere to the triple bottom line, saving money in replacing disgruntled workers who leave in search of greener pastures. And of course, a firm that violates environmental or labor law stands to lose much, even their business.

Help with taking your business into the green

Want to take your business into the green but have no idea where to start? Organizations set up to help you in this venture include:

  • B Corp created a certification process to ascertain a firm’s social and environmental activities. The process begins with a free B Impact Assessment that will measure your company’s impact on its workers and customers, the community, and the environment.
  • EPA’s Resources for Small Businesses provides information on regulatory resources, compliance and enforcement, and the EPA procurement process.
  • The U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce runs a community of green-oriented business owners.

For more info, see The Balance Small Business article, “The 8 Best Resources for Small Businesses Interested in Going Green” as well as the other sources cited in this post.

So you say you want to go green? It’ll take some effort, but it’s worth it. Your kids and your kids’ kids will thank you mightily.


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