Sustainable development, energy efficiency, environmental protection, corporate social responsibility, recycling, waste reduction, are just some of the terms implied or included in the concept of sustainability. A good place to start with any sustainability effort is to define what you mean by sustainability.  The key is to make the definition simple, aspirational and compatible with your organization’s culture and values.

Here are a few general examples:

Sustainability development is development that “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs (Brundtland Report, 1997)

Corporate social responsibility is the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the equality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large

Triple Bottom Line is an expanded spectrum of values and criteria for measuring organizations success – economic, planet and social (John Elkington, 1994)

One team that I’ve worked with chose to use the following working definition:

Sustainability is a set of conditions and trends in a given system that can continue indefinitely.

Predictable, incident free high performance. =

No degradation, indefinitely reliable high performance system

My first reaction to this definition was that “the main things” were missing. What happened to the Triple Bottom Line?  Where is the reference to economy, planet and society found in the last definition?

Then I slowly came to realize that the balancing of economic, environmental and social dimensions of business is how to create sustainability.  It can be found in the way the team is going to create strategic plans to maintain balanced, high performance systems.  The balance of tradeoffs between economics, environment and people decisions is the key.

The team can apply this working definition to a project, program, initiative or strategy.  Because the definition infers a systematic approach to problem solving, economics, environment and social solutions are implied.  As change leaders we are empowered to question decisions if there are alternate possibilities that may favorably effect the entire system, rather than just the traditional economic ones.

I have found myself in the position of coaching the leader of a sustainability initiative who is leading change, but hasn’t realized that the job is as much an issue of change as it is a matter of reducing waste or promoting energy efficiency. I have also supported leaders who have team members who do not support the idea of sustainability because it is has been perceived as anti-competitive to their industry. In both cases, just starting with getting alignment on the definition or alignment on mapping to corporate definition help set teams on a successful path.

As for coaching leaders and dealing with dissention, these are part of strategies of how to achieve sustainability goals. These strategies change and evolve as understanding of sustainability matures.  The most important exercise, if you haven’t already done so, is to create a simple and aspirational definition that reflects the culture and values of your organization.

This is the first of a multi-part series on Sustainability and Change Management