Back to Basics for Small Business: What is Sustainability & How Can it Be Achieved?


Over the last few years, I have seen a massive growth in not only green businesses, but also the term sustainability being misused. Sustainability is not just about eating a vegan diet, riding your bike or reducing your waste. The concept of sustainability is actually a lot more simple, and also a lot more complex than many people think. Given my background, I thought it would be best if I simplified it’s meaning for all those eco-focused individuals, creatives, business owners, brands and bloggers out there, to be able to understand, read, write or speak about it correctly and communicate it effectively with their peers and target audience. So grab out your recycled paper journal and plastic-free pen (or tablet if you’re a super greenie), because you’ll want to take some notes for this one!

sustainability simplified

Unlike sustainable development, there are no universally agreed definitions on what sustainability actually means - say whatttt?  There are many different views on what it is and how it can be achieved.  The idea of sustainability originally came from forestry, where it means "never harvesting more than what the forest yields in new growth" - basically, allowing the trees to grown back before cutting them down again.  However, it wasn’t until the World’s first Earth Summit in Rio, in 1992 that the concept of sustainable development became common language.  Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  Sustainable development can be considered as the pathway to achieving overall sustainability.

RELATED: Green Terminology for Small Business: What's the Difference Between Sustainable, Eco-friendly, Zero Waste, Ethical, Vegan, Organic & Socially Responsible?

Sustainability is the ability to maintain healthy environment, social and economic systems indefinitely, on a local and global scale. These systems are described as the three pillars of sustainability - environment (planet), social (people) and economic (profit), and are interdependent and interconnected.  Although there are many different models that explain the relationship between these three pillars, more recent definitions argue the economy and society are unable to exist without the environment and therefore are entirely dependent on environmental conditions.  Therefore the ultimate goal is to achieve an environmental sustainable society.  Still with me?

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How can we live & work more sustainably?

You might be thinking, where do I come into this and why do my actions matter? Well, the interdependence explained above requires individuals, business leaders and governments to corporate in trying to find and implement innovative short-term and long-term solutions to local and global environmental, social and economic problems.  So, by changing our individual and business behaviour towards our planet, respecting natural processes and protecting biodiversity we are able to contribute to achieving a more sustainable future.  Sustainability is not just about sustaining resources for humans, it's about sustaining resources for all life on earth.

RELATED: Life-cycle Sustainability Assessment: The 6 Stages of Creating a Environmentally-friendly Product

People living in Least Developed Countries (LDCs), use most or all of their income to meet their basic survival needs. However, affluent people from more developed countries often have more disposable income and are able to buy and consume more things they want, beyond their basic needs and requirements. Modern advertising encourages people, like you and me, to buy more and more things to fill a growing list of wants as a way to achieve happiness. Although sustainable living is about living well, it’s also about living with less and in certain limits of consumption. Living more lightly starts with asking yourself the question: How much is enough?

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Living and work more sustainably is not easy and it is difficult for most of us to live a completely environmentally friendly and low impact lifestyle. However, the human activities that have the greatest harm on the environment are agriculture, transportation, home energy use, water use and our overall resource consumption and waste, so these are some of the ones you could start with first (download our Green Lifestyle Guide for 60 ways you can live, work and travel more sustainably here). We are not able to rely only on technological fixes such as recycling, buying carbon offsets to reduce our carbon footprint, changing to energy efficient light bulbs or driving a Tesla. Although these things are extremely important, we must also find ways to take physical actions and create real environmental change. Read our blog post 7 Things You Should be Doing to Save the Environment for tips on how you can do this.

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In the end, it all comes down to what you and I can do to make the earth a better place to live for current and future generations, for other species, and for the ecosystems that support us. We all make some direct or indirect contribution to the environmental problems we face today. And in order to reduce this impact, we must become and stay environmentally informed (through Project 3 P, for example) and evaluate and reduce the environmental harmful aspects of our own lifestyle and small business.

RELATED: 7 Things You Should Be Doing to Save the Environment

Woah that was a lot of information, but I hope it'll help you understand how sustainability works, where it came from and the role individuals and businesses play in achieving a sustainable future.  As anthropologist Margaret Mead summarised our potential for social and environmental change:

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QUICK TIP: For those who are already, or who are wanting to either start a green business or follow a more conscious lifestyle, just remember, the terms sustainability and sustainable living are not interchangeable as they mean slightly different things. Sustainable living (and business) refers to individual actions and is one of the many things we can do to achieve overall sustainability (the concept).

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Lauren GrimshawComment