Sustainability: A Useful Concept?

By Kyle Hubbard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy | January 18, 2018

CEBG sustainability event panel

The Center for Ethics in Business and Governance recently hosted the second speaker series event of the semester, “Maintaining Values in a Competitive Market,” a very rich discussion between Mark Buckley, VP for Sustainability at Staples, and Lisa Drake, Director of Sustainability Innovation at Stonyfield. The discussion was moderated by Dina Frutos-Bencze of Saint Anselm’s Economics and Business department.  

The speakers discussed their respective roles in encouraging environmental sustainability and innovation at all levels of their organizations. Stonyfield and Staples are by no means the only companies who embrace sustainability as core to their business. Read just about any recent business magazine and you’ll find myriad references to sustainability. It’s an idea with which most businesses want to be associated.

Sustainability: What is it?

The problem for ‘sustainability,’ as for any buzzword, is that the more it is used to refer to a wider and wider range of concepts and practices, then the less meaningful it becomes. For example, some now use the term to refer to any business practice that leads to long-term profit; thus, ‘sustainability’ is a synonym for ‘long-term profitability.’ However, using ‘sustainability’ in this way empties the term of its challenge to usual business practice. So, what’s a workable definition of sustainability that preserves it as a challenge and goal for businesses?

While I believe preserving a narrow definition of sustainability is important, it is essential not to make it unduly narrow. There is a danger in restricting sustainability merely to environmental sustainability, the idea that a business should try to change its behavior to have a more positive, or at least less damaging, impact on the natural environment. In fact, restricting the definition to environmental sustainability is a more common problem than widening the definition. I do not mean to suggest that environmental sustainability is not important or that companies should not create positions that focus on environmental sustainability. However, if the only worry a business has is its environmental impact, then it is easy to forget that the business also needs to focus on business practices that are sustainable in the long-term for their customers, employees, and local communities.  

This wider notion of sustainability has its roots in the work of Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, and his idea of sustainable human development. For decades Sen has argued that economic development needs to focus on a concept of human flourishing that is wider than a merely monetary one. Money in people’s pockets does not do much good if it rests on a foundation of abuse of workers or the natural environment. Applied to a business, sustainability in this context means that a business that wants to be sustainable needs to think not only about how its business practices impact the environment, but also about how its business practices affect the long-term flourishing of the firm’s employees, customers, and the local communities in which it is located.  

Why be sustainable?
Why should a business pursue sustainability in this wider sense? It seems to me that two appeals must be made: an economic and an ethical one. The economic case is fairly straightforward. A business that treats its employees and customers well and minimizes its long-term environmental impact is a company that might not maximize short-term profits but is one that has a chance to be set up for long-term economic success. Of course the economic argument has limitations. It is simply not always true that a business that makes decisions that will help their stakeholders and the environment flourish is always one that will be economically successful. So, a further ethical defense of sustainability is essential.  

The ethical case in favor of sustainability–whether environmental sustainability or the wider focus on human development–is more often assumed than explicitly made. It seems to me there are at least two ethical concepts necessary to ground sustainability, a notion of intergenerational justice and a robust account of human flourishing.   Sustainability assumes that long-term success is more important than short-term profitability. To make this case requires the principle of intergenerational justice, the notion that we have responsibilities to subsequent generations (our children and grandchildren) and those duties are as strong as our duties to the current generation.  The other concept essential for sustainability is a clear definition of human flourishing. So, what is required for human flourishing? There are many competing accounts.  Here, I will simply claim that we need a notion of human flourishing that is wider than maximizing economic choices. Too often we think of human flourishing simply in terms of maximizing my individual purchasing power, i.e., the more money I have, the more I will flourish because I will have more choices open to me. While a certain level of economic success may be necessary for human flourishing, there are other goods besides economic ones. A useful concept of human flourishing must recognize the human need for goods beyond money, the goods of relationships, communal institutions, and political stability.

So what if after making this case a business decides to ignore sustainability for short-term profit? In a political world where we are finally recognizing the effects of long-term wage stagnation at the lower end of the economic scale as well as the breakdown of community life in many parts of the country, focusing on sustainable human development may be less of a choice and more a survival necessity.