The Definition of Sustainability

Sustainability means many different things to different people. What does it mean for your organization and what can you do about it?

Speaking with my brother earlier this year, he asked me, “How do you explain sustainability to someone outside of your industry? ” It was a great question.

Sustainability carries nuance. It bears various meanings to different people and is context-dependent. As we all are guilty from time to time, I’m often caught too far in the forest to see the trees.

What Does it Mean?

In its rawest form, sustainability is the ability to sustain, even in the wake of external disturbances.

To a ship’s captain, sustainability means staying afloat through a raging storm while keeping the crew safe. An astronaut may consider sustainability as living on the stored rations of food and oxygen for the entirety of their mission. A business leader may point to the ability to generate and sustain growth each quarter.

What does it mean for you? How does it apply to your business? Frankly, why should you care?

All Systems Go

Think of sustainability this way: system inflows and outflows.

Mechanical engineers do this all the time when thinking about engines, like the one in your car. We think in systems: inflows of oil to lubricate moving parts and a mixture of oxygen and fuel produce outflows of power for locomotion, combustion emissions, and used oil.

Botanists often study plants using a systems point-of-view. Inflows of sunlight, nutrients, carbon dioxide, and water produce outflows of oxygen, fruit, and dead leaves to prepare for winter. 

Resources in equals resources out.

As it turns out, corporations also operate under the “systems” analogy. They contain defined boundaries and resource flows. So do households, countries, and individuals. 

Sustainability is the practice of harmonizing all inflows and outflows with its ecosystem. It’s the ability to meet our own needs today without compromising the future generation’s ability to do the same.

Why Should I Care?

As R. Buckminster Fuller put it, “We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.” We’re burdening future generations of humans, and the ecosystems in which they will live, by the decisions you and I make today.

For a 2-minute illustrative exercise, take a piece of paper and pen and try this:

  1. Write your company’s name at the very center of the page. Draw a circle around it.
  2. Draw an arrow pointing horizontally towards the circle and label the arrow ‘Inputs’.
  3. Now draw an arrow from the circle pointing away from the circle. Label this arrow ‘Outputs’.

Now consider the “ingredients” necessary for daily operation at your organization (you may need to sit down!) We’re referring to the inflows of materials, resources, and people required to operate your business.

For example, this could include employees, computer equipment, the physical building, office supplies, server room, raw materials for manufacturing, transportation equipment, fuel, food to the cafeteria, energy to keep the lights on, water, etc. You could expand the scope to consider everything from the banana your accountant ate during his commute, to copy paper and toner.

It would take hours to create an exhaustive list. I challenge you to write 10-15 “ingredients” for the sake of the example.

Now take a look at your inflows.

Now write the outflows, entailing everything that your company sends out into the world. Think of manufactured goods distributed across your supply chains. Think of business documents mailed, employee travel, packages sent, trash and recycling generated, or fuel and electricity.

Can you identify any resources (inflows) your business may have a hard time attaining 100 years from now? Do you see any outflows that could become a future generation’s problem?

What Can I Do?

Sustainability is working to change your answer from a quizzical “yes” to a resounding and confident “heck no!” It’s a mindset focused on leaving a planet for future generations to enjoy. It requires considering the broader context surrounding our decisions today. It’s not an expense, it’s an investment insuring your business operates in perpetuity.

So whether you’re a botanist, an engineer, an astronaut, or a business leader, we’re all responsible for the impacts of the decisions we make today. It doesn’t matter if you’re a grizzled sustainability warrior or an interested hobbyist.

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. We all play an active role.

Are you interested in strategies to create a more resilient, sustainable business today? Solutions in Sustainability advises businesses on strategies to meet their long-term sustainability goals. Reach out today to learn more.

 About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at 

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