‘Sustainability’ has become a buzzword in this day and age and through this week’s feature on ‘Sustainable stake’ we will see how it is instead a complex umbrella concept that is organized to capture a range of facets that works simultaneously so as to induce an ecological balance. Through this article, we will be unravelling the three pillars of sustainability, namely; the environment, social, and economic facets of sustainability, and also how it affects the competitive landscape of many businesses.
In one of our earlier articles: ‘What does it mean to be a sustainable individual or organization.’, we succinctly described the three pillars in the following manner:
· Environmental Sustainability: Simply the frugal yet efficient use of natural resources. Allowing natural resources to replenish themselves for future use naturally, and without overexploitation leading to severe ecological damage to the Earth.
· Economic Sustainability: Economic Sustainability has had its critics and has been open to misinterpretation in the past. However, at its very core, as described by Dunphy et al. (2007), it is the process of how business can achieve profit without doing any short- or long-term harm to the environment. Economic Sustainability is about accepting and working with the other pillars of sustainability. Before the bottom-line goal, it deals with how companies must develop methods and procedures to minimise damage to the Earth while considering social and economic implications.
· Social Sustainability: Social sustainability deals with human rights. All individuals must be subject to fair and ethical working standards. Furthermore, it also pushes for development to ensure all families and communities can access enough resources to keep them safe and healthy. It also includes a broader framework where all of us acknowledge how our actions impact this world and how we must incorporate cohesion and honesty into our communities to preserve the world for generations to come.
But before we dig deeper into each of these pillars, let us first see where all of this comes from.
The origin of ‘Sustainability’ as a concept can be traced back to the 17th century where Hans Carl Von Carlowitz documented his own experience with regard to how the mining industry then had felled a lot of timber for the smelting of ores which is integral to the mining process. The acute shortage of timber due to the deforestation of trees at unsustainable rates had even threatened the livelihood of many in Saxony at around 1700. Consequently, the prices of timber had increased – so much so that it led to the bankruptcy and ‘shutting-shop’ of several stakeholders to the mining industry. Hans Carl Von Carlowitz then explained how the ever-looming crisis of scarcity can be resolved by the ‘planned cultivation to multiply the timber harvest’ (page 105–106 in the Sylvicultura Oeconomica“). Since then the concept has evolved into including additional dimensions as political economists during the industrial revolution considered the ‘scarcity’ problem with regard to the limits of economic growth, wealth generation and social justice’. The currently-used version of the term describes the concept as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs’.
Now where does all of this fit in the dimension of the average consumer? It all boils down to whether or not we are conscious of the implications of our decisions we make on various aspects of our life like clothing, food, personal hygiene etc etc. Fortunately, we have already covered how we absolutely need to change to slow fashion in an article last week. We will cover how the three pillars apply to the other aspects of sustainability in the future and so in this article we will unravel the three pillars for the average consumer so that readers like you can use it like a framework to make better decisions on a daily basis.
The three pillars of sustainability; a deeper insight
The three pillars can help us all when we use it as a framework to keep track of the accountability-aspect as well as the consequences of the production process - which is important for consumers especially before making a decision to buy something (conscious consumerism remember?!?), and to possibly be a structured layout to business owners to assess their use of raw materials or the prevailing set of production practices that are being used in the production process.
Upon further consideration; we see that the very biosphere we live in is the underlying foothold that supplies to the necessities of our existence. The diagram shows how the three pillars are interlinked and contribute towards the welfare of the people. If our actions and activities press a greater strain on our resources, increasing the cost to the environment – greater than the benefit to other two dimensions; then this imbalance is considered to be a state of disequilibrium and would thereby be rendered ‘unsustainable’. When the involved facets form a mutually beneficial trade that considers its implications by behaving responsibly; then there exists a social contract that binds the social and economic systems of the group of individuals together. Generally, this responsibility falls on the government – the responsibility to oversee and implement measures that function towards serving and protecting our biosphere, our surroundings, our home.
This pillar basically stands for living within the means of what is available to us. If we either overexploit or over-allocate resources, then we may be compromising our ability to continue extracting natural resources indefinitely. Such consequences may compromise the standard of living for the future generations as there are fewer resources to choose from when gearing production towards their needs. Therefore as prompted by the resolutions placed forth by Herman Daly, an ecological economist, if we are able to do the following things, then we may be able to maintain a strong set of fundamentals for business processes and practices;
(1) If the resources in question are renewable, then businesses or agents involved in the use of such resources for production or consumption should allocate equivalent efforts for sufficient regeneration of those resources as they are being harvested
(2) Pollution: if the production/process/activity involved contributes towards some kind of pollution; then such activities should be monitored to see that the pollution cause should not outweigh the assimilative capacity of the environment.
(3) For the problem with the non-renewable resources; considering how such resources are limited in nature and cannot be regenerated as easily as the renewable alternative; it will be ideal if the agent in question allocate efforts towards the development of suitable substitutes for that resource.
At its core, the economic pillar of a business is tapped when the business is able to strike a balance between their profit motive and their responsibilities to the environment and society. The enforcement of such an ideal is intuitively possible when the associated management has steadfast managers who are wary of their decisions and its implications to various stakeholders of the business. Obviously, business practices can only follow such requirements if the associated business activity is financially sustainable. Oftentimes than not, firms find it constraining to devote efforts and resources towards ensuring proper governance, practices, operations and processes. This could be due to anything like relatively higher costs associated with obtaining eco friendly or sustainable raw materials, non-cooperation from the suppliers-end to execute processes in the desired manner, and for small business, there exists the possibility of ridicule/pessimism from fellow shareholders for having to go through the trouble to incur costs and focus efforts to becoming both environmentally and socially responsible.
Trust me when I say this, these are all problems that we go through here at Emacity but we have never compromised the core vision behind this company when we started it; that is to be the company that is to become the sustainable alternative whether it be for mainstream products or otherwise. And so it is without a flicker of doubt that I say that while shifting to sustainability may be hard; the change will be for the better and so the initial struggle will be worth it. Now lets see how social sustainability is yet another important facet when it comes to becoming responsible individuals/companies. Check out this interesting infographic that I found the other day about how we can bring about impactful changes in the workspace for a more sustainable footprint. Even though this infographic was made in 2017, I feel like its still relevant in this day and age especially since businesses these days are stumped about what exactly to do with the 'work-from-home' norm that has become the new-normal.
Source: Green office week 2017: Avery.
This pillar is concerned with whether or not the activity in question contributes towards any growth in social capital that builds/corrects the social framework. That is, it involves acknowledging the impact of our activities on other stakeholder groups, especially different sections of the society. This is especially important as we are slowly attempting to shift towards a more egalitarian society where all communities with different cultures can coexist. And so for any enterprise, it is important to ultimately help contribute towards resolving social issues by either advocating for certain policies that promote such things or embellish on shared ideas that could be promoted through their influence or standing in society.
It would also be interesting to know that these pillars are also used as an ‘index set’ to assess (for example) how sustainable a city is. The pillars would accordingly have a ‘people sub-index’ where focus is placed on aspects like life expectancy, education, income inequality, work-life balance, the dependency ratio etc etc. The environmental pillar would extend towards capturing things like the share of renewable energy in total energy consumption, provisions for green spaces within the cities (e.g. recycling centers), and also the accounting for problems like greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution etc of a production facility. These encompass the ‘green factors’ of the index. And finally there’s a profit sub-index which examines the economic health of the city, very much similar to the pillar discussed before. Another common tool that perfectly summarizes these pillars is something called the ‘triple bottom line’ which measures the sustainability of a business with respect to the people, the planet and the profitability of a business.