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What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is perhaps the most topical word in the IT world today, but its definition isn’t as narrow as people may think. Whilst environmental sustainability may be directly applicable to an IT product there are multiple areas to consider when looking as sustainability in a broader context.

Karl Neary

September 27, 2021

Environmental Sustainability

Sustainability became a buzzword in 1987 after the UN’s Brundtland Commission defined it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This is mirrored in the Oxford English Dictionary today: “The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”.

Clearly, the modern definition of sustainability is entangled in environmentalism. Like all words, though, its definition has evolved during its lifetime.

Evolution of Sustainability

The English word sustainability is derived from the Latin word sustineo: to uphold, sustain, endure. Historically, then, sustainability was not inseparable from environmentalism. This inseparability is a recent evolution linked to the environmental crisis. At Apex Evolution, we believe the environmental definition of sustainability is too narrow for modern commercial purposes.

Triple Bottom Line (TBL)

A more holistic view of sustainability was theorised in 1994 by John Elkington when he coined the term “triple bottom line” (TBL). This is a measure of commercial sustainability that focuses on people, profit, and the planet.

People

Jeroen Kraaijenbrink defines social sustainability as “the positive and negative impact an organization has on its most important stakeholders. These include employees, families, customers, suppliers, communities, and any other person influencing or being affected by the organization.” Call it the people account.

Profit

In the TBL, profit doesn’t just mean the traditional financial metric of how much money an organisation generates after costs are subtracted from revenue. In this context, it means anything economic. Kraaijenbrink defines economic sustainability as “the positive and negative impact an organization has on the local, national and international economy. This includes creating employment, generating innovation, paying taxes, wealth creation and any other economic impact an organization has.” Call it the profit account.

Planet

The planet relates to the modern environmental definition of sustainability discussed earlier. Kraaijenbrink defines environmental sustainability as “the positive and negative impact an organization has on its natural environment. This includes reducing its carbon footprint, usage of natural resources, toxic materials and so on, but also the active removal of waste, reforestation and restoration of natural harm done.” Call it the planet account.

The Balancing Act

The people, profit, and planet accounts shouldn’t be assessed in isolation. After all, Elkington explains that “the TBL wasn’t designed to be just an accounting tool. It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and the future, but many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality.”

Referring to the TBL Venn diagram, adopting a trade-off mentality may result in three types of imbalance.

The most common is profit account imbalance: performing well on the profit account but poorly on the people and planet accounts. This may result in negative consequences like labour exploitation and deforestation. Indeed, many organisations that aren’t aware the TBL exists may be guilty of this.

The second type is people account imbalance: performing well on the people account but poorly on the profit and planet accounts. This may result in negative consequences like underemployment and deforestation.

The third type is planet account imbalance: performing well on the planet account but poorly on the people and profit accounts. This may result in negative consequences like labour exploitation and underemployment.

Only by performing well on all three accounts can an organisation achieve balanced sustainability that benefits people, profit, and the planet simultaneously.

Takeaway

Our view at Apex is that sustainability isn’t just environmentalism. It’s a three-dimensional concept that balances people, profit, and the planet simultaneously.

To understand more about Apex Evolution’s application of sustainability across IT product and services please contact the team on [email protected]