But, what is Sustainability?

Liza Tullidge
10 min readNov 3, 2023

Can Business Really “Provide the Necessities of Life” for our Planet?

Searching for What actually defines “sustainability” for businesses?

Can Business Really “Provide the Necessities of Life” for our Planet?

“Sustainability.”

The most popular and, often, convoluted word in business right now, echoed across boardrooms, protests, politicians, and the press.

In today’s business landscape, the push towards sustainability is unrelenting driven by environmental crises, socio-economic disparities, and looming regulatory changes demanding more planet-friendly practices. Plus, let’s be honest, to avoid the public mire of being caught in a markedly unsustainable scandal: think VW’s diesel emissions manipulations, Apple’s forced labor woes, Gucci and Hermès’ animal cruelty shocks, or LVMH and Burberry’s “burning waste” debacle.

Yet, what actually defines “sustainability” for businesses?

Is it merely a PR move or a genuine corporate strategy? Can it drive profits? Where does one even begin?

There is no clear playbook or step-by-step guide for a company to follow to achieve “sustainability.” The confusion, messiness, and perceived downright lack of clarity into the process has for many years kept curious CEOs, boards, and leaders from jumping in. How on earth could they justify it to their boards and shareholders if they couldn’t even properly encapsulate what they proposed? Thankfully, pioneers, like Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, Paul Polman of Unilever, and Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, weathered the murky journey to incorporate sustainability into their organizations. Whilst their paths were/are often imperfect, or even incorrect at times, their learnings, alongside many others, help to lay the foundations for what is possible and how to approach it. They have helped to show the world a new path forward, demystifying the journey and demonstrating the validity of businesses to be for profit and for good.

The pioneers are helping to lay a framework for new business models that not only achieve profits and impact, but also validate the viability of sustainable business. Yet, despite this progress, the fundamental ambiguity around “sustainability” persists.

In the vein of Socrates, “the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms,” let’s take the air quotes off sustainability, break it down to its fundamental building blocks, and see if we can start to find some clarity in the simplicity.

While many enter the conversation assuming we share a common understanding, often, our definitions can vary significantly, leading to discrepancies. Maybe if we take a look from the most basic, elementary definition we can find a common bedrock from which to expand.

In my attempts to cut through the noise around sustainability, this is my ever-evolving definition as I continue to learn in and develop my own sustainability practice. It is not meant to be the paramount or superseding definition, as there are many other valuable definitions from experts who incorporate different perspectives and approaches to mine. With the rate of flux and evolution in the Sustainable Business space and as we try to figure out the path forward, I believe it’s essential that we remain curious and hungry to synthesize learnings from a variety of interpretations.

Now, let’s do this:

Sustainability.

Originating from 13th century Old French, the root “Sustenen,” means “to provide the necessities of life to.” This evolved into the modern verb “to sustain.” Pairing the root with the suffix “-able” from the Latin root -abilis, which conveys the capability, requirement, or qualification of an action. So, now, our word becomes:

Sustain-ability.

To sustain signifies maintaining existence or prolonging viability. Thus, at its core, the root of sustainability is the ability to continue, the ability to last. Therefore, the active process of sustainability is, merely, sustaining existence. Or in the Old French sense “providing the necessities of life.”

If sustainability champions the idea of preserving life or ensuring the continuation of existence, then it implies an unbroken and consistent supply of resources to uphold this state of being. For individuals, this translates to essentials such as food, air, water, and shelter — foundational for life and consciousness. For businesses, it encompasses investments, human capital, and natural resources, all vital for maintaining operations and achieving prolonged success.

To summarize: If you want to exist, much less succeed, you must have resources. If you want to continue to exist, you must maintain.

Recap : Sustainability (at its essence) = Resources + Maintenance

Yet, this is where ambiguity often creeps in. What counts as “resources”? And what do I mean by “maintaining?”

Resources

Let’s start with resources: resources don’t just apply to the direct ingredients of your product, whatever it may be. We must look at the systems those resources require to exist. This isn’t an exercise in philosophical Buddhist aphorisms. It’s changing our perspective to think eco-systemically.

Earlier this year, I recently heard Laurent Boillot, CEO of Hennessy and former CEO of Guerlain, speak at ChangeNOW 2023. He spoke about the orchids upon which Guerlain’s premiere skincare line depends. On a trip to China to visit the forest where these orchids grow, a member of his team illuminated the interdependence these orchids required to grow in a simple, potent statement — “No bees, no orchids, no product, no Guerlain.” If Guerlain wanted these orchids to be consistently available for their use, they had to invest in their viability by ensuring they supported the health and continuation of the bees, the forest, and the entire ecosystem.

Traditionally, mankind has been conditioned to perceive itself as master over nature. We’ve held the belief that we can selectively exploit what we desire, optimize a singular aspect, and neglect the remainder. But nature doesn’t operate in isolation, nor does it bow to the demands of market metrics. For instance, essentials like lithium and cobalt, integral to battery production, don’t magically appear. They are products of intricate natural processes shaped by specific conditions. Similarly, crops demand healthy soil, clean water, balanced sunlight, and pollinators for growth.

For businesses, it’s essential to understand that resources aren’t just end products. It’s about the encompassing ecosystem. Boillot’s emphasis isn’t solely on the orchid but the forest in which it thrives. For agriculturists, it’s not just the crop but the nurturing soil. For tech enterprises, it’s not just about servers but the entire chain: the energy source, the raw materials, and the recycling processes.

Yes, this may sound like it makes things unnecessarily complex, but actually it’s actually quite sensible when we reframe our perspective: remember things don’t grow on command and if we want to sustain, we need to maintain.

Historically, humanity’s interactions with the environment have been simple: from hunting for food to logging for wood. We’ve often operated under the illusion of limitless resources, mainly because our consumption remained within the earth’s regenerative capacity. But with burgeoning populations and industrial growth, this balance has been disrupted. Now, we’re grappling with the consequences of our actions and the limitations of our planet.

In these early days, we got to be oblivious because our consumption was simple and within the harmony of an ecosystem. As populations, industries, and appetites grew, our operating assumption didn’t change. Whether convenience, ignorance, naivety, or any other reasoning, we continued on as though the world would sort itself out and didn’t have to be our problem remained. Now, the bell has tolled and we are waking up to the reality of our responsibility, affect, and contribution to the world around us.

Today, we’ve breached the bounds of planetary balance. If the entire world adopted the UK’s lifestyle, we’d need 2.75 Earths merely to survive- — to keep the ecosystems alive to supply the needed resources to maintain our lifestyle. Not for a healthy, balanced ecosystem or thriving planet — just for mere survival of those ecosystems to fuel humanity. This is a stark reminder that if we want to sustain, we must also invest in stewardship and we have to maintain.

Then, what counts as maintaining?

Maintaining

We’ll start by using the UN Sustainable Development report as our baseline for defining terms: maintaining is “the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Okay, simple enough. If we were back in our first years of school, this would be “take only what you need and leave the rest for others,” right?

It’s not about fuelling limitless growth or “more for me, less for you.” It’s about intelligent management thinking balancing short-term and long-term. How do I ensure that I will have enough resources available to maintain the production/operations needed to still carry on as a successful business now, tomorrow, in 10 years, in a century, and beyond?

Many of today’s businesses sit on foundations of reactive thinking and immediate gratification, thanks to market quarters and other Wall Street urgencies, with hyper short term memories. They forget the impact of the past on their position whilst also disregarding their impact on the future unfolding around them. Here is one of many lessons business can learn from the wisdom of the world.

The Haudenosaunee have a powerful guiding principle, the Seventh Generation Principle, which holds that the world we have today was created by the seven generations before us and that we are the stewards for the seven generations to come. Therefore, the new decisions we make today should result in a world that we are proud to hand down and will sustain seven generations into the future.

I bring this principle up not to encourage the exploitation of indigenous peoples, but in gratitude for what I have learned from truth held within this principle and to encourage others to learn from their wisdom. This principle is part of the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee, the founding document of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — the oldest living participatory democracy on earth. Keeping this principle as a guiding light for decision-making, operating, and leadership has sustained the Haudenosaunee Confederacy for over 500 years. If we want to have continued existence in the areas important to us, for many, that is our businesses, we may want to update not only our perspectives, but our definitions, for “managing” and “maintaining.”

Stewardship sits at the core of maintaining. We do not own the world, we are a part of it. We are fortunate to get to use its resources, but it is not ours to exploit and drain as we please throughout our lifetime. The vitality of the world has been entrusted into our care. We, and businesses especially as the creators of such value and prominence, must act as the stewards of that vitality. The actions we take have a ripple effect of consequences and we must do our best to own our consequences, to remedy the impact of the past, and to act in alignment with sustaining ourselves as well as generations to come.

Now let me connect my soapbox back to business. This concept might sound wonderfully spiritual hippy, but, actually, it makes strong sense for business.

Let’s picture you are Laurent Boillot, the CEO of Hennessy mentioned earlier. He stands in a long line of CEOs who have stewarded the company into its position today for over two and a half centuries. His current landscape, in essence, is a culmination of impacts of leaders past. Now, if Laurent wants Hennessy to have a long line of CEOs to succeed him, then he will need to adopt long term thinking into his decisions today.

The motivation to think this way isn’t entirely altruistic. Many CEOs have a significant part of their personal wealth intertwined with the company’s success due to stock options or equity stakes. If Laurent wishes for these assets to retain value, ensuring they benefit his family for generations, then Hennessy must not only thrive today but also be poised for future success. This means consistent access to and maintenance of necessary resources, as discussed earlier, now and in the future. In essence, Laurent’s success as a leader, and his financial legacy, is tied to the company’s sustainable future.

Maintaining is the true crux of sustainability. Resources enable existence and operation, but maintaining is what enables a business to sustain its existence, success, profitability, and impact.

Keep this simple. It’s not meant to answer every question, but it’s the bedrock, first layer of a sustainability framework that you can tangibly apply into your business.

It aligns sustainability with traditional business approaches, closing the chasm so many feel and face when addressing “sustainability.” Successfully implementing it requires curiosity, understanding your unique position, vision, virtues, and legacy, as well as evolution, all of which we discuss in later articles. For now, take a moment to look at your business through this simple lens and explore what you can see.

Now, to circle back to the top…

Whilst we may not be able to fully demystify the intricacies of sustainable initiatives yet, we can at least find surety in a bedrock — a framework of thinking built upon two key questions:

  1. What resources does your company require?
  2. How can you maintain them to ensure consistent and ongoing access?

This timeless lesson, reflected in the principles described above and brought to life by the leaders I’ve mentioned, serves as our North Star and guides us whenever the road grows murky.

Sustainability demands a profound understanding of our interconnectedness, an accountable acknowledgement of our footprint, and an unwavering commitment to a future of balanced ecosystems. For any business with sights set on the long game, sustainability isn’t an ‘option’; it’s the playbook. Let’s tackle it with the same curiosity, simplicity, and gumption we’ve explored it with today. Because in the end, it’s about businesses that don’t just thrive today, but also nurture and safeguard the world they operate in to thrive through the future.

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Liza Tullidge is a serial entrepreneur, investor + advisor focused on reengineering business + individuals to build a better planet. Find out more about Liza + her work at www.lizatullidge.com

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Liza Tullidge

| Builder. Creater. Challenger. | Entrepreneur out to build a 1% better world each day + figure out life as I go. Oh and let’s save the planet too…