Sustainability: Can our society endure?

Among the many ways that sustainability has been defined, the simplest and most fundamental is: "the ability to sustain" or, put another way, "the capacity to endure."

Today, it is by no means certain our society has the capacity to endure – at least in such a way that the nine billion people expected on Earth by 2050 will all be able to achieve a basic quality of life. The planet's ecosystems are deteriorating and the climate is changing. We are consuming so much, and so quickly, that we are already living far beyond the earth's capacity to support us. And yet nearly a sixth of our fellow humans go to bed hungry each day: both an unnecessary tragedy and a source of social and political unrest. Meanwhile, our globalized world is more interconnected and volatile than ever, making us all more vulnerable.

While sustainability is about the future of our society, for today's industries and businesses, it is also about commercial success. The mandate to transform businesses to respect environmental limits while fulfilling social wants and needs has become an unparalleled platform for innovation on strategy, design, manufacturing and brand, offering massive opportunities to compete and to adapt to a rapidly evolving world.

The change we need

To endure, we as a society must transform our markets – both how we produce and consume, and the very ways in which we define and measure value and progress.

This is a big challenge, and not just for business and economics. It is a call for massive social, political, technological, cultural and behavioral transition. We will need governments to set incentives, targets and rules for a level playing field, civil society actors to hold us to account and to experiment with new ways of delivering social impact, and each of us to take actions in our own lives to reward sustainable business models and to eat, work, travel and play more sustainably.

Business is crucial - but we need new ways of doing it

To achieve this transformation, we need the capacity of business to innovate and to execute, meeting market needs swiftly, effectively and on a global scale. To do this in a way that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" ¹, we will need new ways of doing business. The successful businesses of tomorrow will be those that lead and create value both inside and outside the walls of the company.

This will mean managing for the long-term as well as the short-term, developing strategies that balance competition and cooperation, designing and delivering products and services that meet social and environmental needs, shifting to more resilient business models based on closed-loop, open-source, peer-to-peer or service-based principles (to name a few), incorporating the true costs of environmental and social resources, and seeing transparency and collaboration as sources of competitive advantage.

For these businesses, sustainability means not only eco-efficiency, but also eco-effectiveness. Sustainability is absolutely about marketing and branding – when that means identifying market needs based on long-term prosperity and creating tribes of sustainable consumers. Sustainability needs to be about ‘greening'– because businesses and communities depend on healthy, productive ecosystems. Sustainability can also encompass corporate philanthropy – when that philanthropy is strategic.

Above all, we believe that for tomorrow's enduring businesses, sustainability will be about making money by meeting real and fundamental human needs.

What’s next

Our vision is a world where all humans have access to healthcare, nutrition, energy, shelter, mobility, education and economic opportunity (Access), where the market system is based on fundamental ethics, inclusive and fair approaches, and transparency (Accountability), where sustainable brands fulfill their promise to deliver goods and services that satisfy societal and individual demand simultaneously (Consumers & Brands), where energy systems power our economy without increasing global temperatures beyond 2°C (Energy & Climate), where liberalized trading systems are truly free, fair and sustainable (Globalization), where natural resources and systems are preserved and renewed (Resources & Ecosystems), and where clear goals and the promise of value creation help companies to navigate the sustainability journey (Strategy & Innovation).

Over twenty years ago we chose the name SustainAbility to reflect both our goal and our conviction that it is possible. We have made it our mission to inspire transformative business leadership on the sustainability agenda. We invite you to share in this pursuit.

Learn more about our work

1 The classic definition of sustainable development established by the U.N. Brundtland Commission in Our Common Future (1987).

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