What makes a Business “Sustainable?”

An Aggrandized Rant by Davis Saltonstall

What is it exactly that makes a business sustainable? Sustainability has been such a buzzword over the past several years that it’s hard to determine exactly what the term is supposed to mean. To an un-informed observer, the field of “sustainable” projects currently in progress is recognizably overwhelming. Cutting carbon emissions, reducing waste, increasing recycling, stewardship of resources, reduction in water usage, bio-fuels, nuclear energy, solar energy, wind energy, anything but nuclear energy, natural gas, banning fracking, corporate giving, community farming, urban greenspace… it’s all been characterized as some form of sustainable change—and the vast collection of ideas and projects is understandably confusing and sometimes contradictory. Objectively determining the sustainability of an organization is an incredibly difficult task that requires the introduction of open data and business accountability if it hopes to fully be achieved. 

In order to build an understanding for the true “sustainability” of actions that organizations undertake, it’s necessary first to define exactly what it is that we mean in using that term. Depending on the scope of our definition and whom it applies to, the “sustainability” of a business has a wide variety of interpretations. In it’s most basic sense, “sustainability” is characterized by the maintenance of an action at a certain rate or level. This definition creates an incredible clash between conservatives and progressives in its interpretation (in a philosophical sense, although this can probably be misconstrued and still preserve its understanding as a political statement) because it inherently questions the actions society at large wishes to maintain and relies heavily on the future that people envision. Do we continue the same? Or do we change? If we must change, what shouldwe change? It’s hard to say whether there is such a thing as objective (or data driven) sustainability because of these clashing perspectives. There are a number of academics, for example, that have raised concerns about the sustainability of business operations in general; many suggesting that businesses cannot be sustainable because it is inherently expansive and extractive despite the finite resources the planet provides.  If such is the case, the discussion on “business sustainability” morphs from a list of characteristic descriptions of businesses, to a fundamental reorganization of business development principles. We must then talk less about the commitments that individual businesses are making, and consider instead how the whole of business operations within the global economy have shifted to incorporate a more “sustainable” vision for the future based on the actions individual firms (think game theory). That is perhaps the broadest aspect of “sustainable business” that we can observe and discuss; however, it’s clear that there are number of other aspects of sustainability that are readily considered when building the term within a business-framed construct. 

“Sustainability,” can be broken down into a variety of different components (and biases) that make it even more difficult to track within individual businesses. Depending on an individual’s interest or an organization’s priorities, whether they are environmental, social, or economic, “sustainability” takes a variety of different forms. “Sustainability” has been most prominently been attached to environmental terminology. It is associated with “sustainably managed forests” and “carbon footprint analysis.” But “sustainability” can also refer to the pursuit of Justice, fair labor practices, and other social pursuits. Additionally, it can simultaneously be used as justification for budget slashing, anti-union policy, and other measures of fiscal austerity. Different socio-political spheres interpret “sustainability” based on their own ideologies and constructions around the mechanics and priorities of human existence. Depending on whom you speak to, “sustainability” depends on the balance we create between “our environment,” “our social fabric,” and “our economic systems,” and the priorities we develop within that intricate system. Perhaps I’m over-explaining, but it’s important to note how variable our perceptions of “sustainability” are to a sway in public opinion, particularly because businesses have an incredible ability to shift those ideas through the dissemination of media. 

Businesses, to some respect, can control the public’s perception of their own “sustainability” by creating a lopsided representation of their operations by releasing limited information on negative, “unpopular” aspects of their organization and over-publicizing aspects of their operations that the public is in favor of. In such respects, “sustainability” is more appropriately defined as a keen marketing program—and self-explained within the business through a sort of self-sustaining logic akin to the larger framework of “sustainability” that the public embraces. For instance, BP might defend their image (and retains profits) by displaying pictures of wind-turbines on their homepage or rename themselves “Beyond Petroleum,” while simultaneously explaining the reliance that global infrastructure has on the energy they produce (oil and gas). Their choice to release this information, rather than publishing a complete report on the extensive extraction they pursue through offshore drilling (remember Deepwater Horizon? AKA: the BP Oil Spill) shapes public awareness and response to the actions that they make on a daily basis. The same sort of game is played by “sustainability” activists as well. Organizations and individuals select information to communicate based on our desired goals and outcomes. 

If there were such a thing as “objective sustainability,” it would require the release of comprehensive business operations across all sectors in order to be considered a real sort of development. When we return back to the original definition I first outlined, and assume that sustainability is characterized by the maintenance of an action at a certain rate or level; we can objectively delineate “sustainability” as a balance of stock and flow values. Environmentally, that means calculating limits to resources and establishing the natural rate of replenishment against our rate of extraction; socially, that means determining the needs of a growing society and how they are hampered by existing forms of suppression; and economically, that means recognizing the limits within which our economies fluctuate and how financial flows expand and contract according to various operations. This kind of objective evaluation of “sustainability” takes a significant amount of math; it’s the result of blended micro and macro economic analysis, incorporation of externalized social and environmental costs, and unprecedented investment in sciences that are capable of mapping intricate connections between different flows through the bio-social continuum. The answer is in open data. 

A business, in this framework of analysis with widely accessible open data, cannot be “sustainable” without first admitting to itself the intimate relationship that it has with the community where it exists. And that all of the choices it makes on a daily basis have a number of different effects within the social, environmental, and economic spheres. And in order to prevent this admission from being socialized as any “one thing in particular,” those relationships need to be mapped within a larger framework. Open data provide communities of all sizes with the ability to map the interactions that occur within our economy on a daily basis and more accurately understand the relationships that we develop with companies.