Is Environmental Sustainability Unsustainable?

Sustainable development is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So said Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway.

Until the 1980s, business leaders used the word sustainability to mean a company’s ability to increase its earnings, steadily through time. It wasn’t until 1987 and the UN Brundtland Report that its contemporary definition was established.

At Junxion, we use both definitions of sustainability, blending them in our work to help organizations to ‘increase their earnings, steadily through time’ by ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ We take a holistic view of sustainability, and we believe that anything but a holistic view is in fact, unsustainable.

Sustainability is a three-legged stool

Social sustainability can give invaluable support to environmental and financial sustainability.

This is a commonly used metaphor. Each leg represents one pillar of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. In this metaphor, the legs of the stool support the balanced seat, sustainability, which can withstand significant pressures. If on the other hand we fail to consider one (or two!) legs, the seat may balance for a while, but it will collapse when forced to sustain even small pressures on the missing legs.

Sustainability vs. Environmental Sustainability

We—consumers, business leaders, intrapreneurs… among others—have mistakenly knocked the sustainability stool off balance. By making sustainability all about the environment, we’ve stripped away parts of the holistic breadth of true sustainability.

‘Environmental sustainability’ has become incorrectly synonymous with ‘sustainability.’

Cast your mind back to the 1970s, for the earliest, and perhaps most glaring example of this mindset. Acid rain, caused by anthropogenic SO2 emissions, resulted in acidification of lakes, deterioration of forests, and dissolution of soil nutrients. Enhanced in urgency by the discovery of the ‘ozone hole,’ pollution became a tangible, widely covered topic around the world. Environmental sustainability was thrust into the spotlight, and soon the international community rallied to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1980s. Undoubtedly, this was a major and important global success.

As environmental sustainability entered mainstream understanding, organizations began to issue sustainability reports in the 1990s. Environmental indicators, such as carbon emissions and energy consumption, became mainstream business indicators, and they were much easier to measure than social performance indicators.

The surge in international attention, the growing body of environmental legislation and the sharp increase in environmentally-focused sustainability reporting meant the environment became the primary focus of many sustainability conversations.

‘Environmental sustainability’ has become incorrectly synonymous with ‘sustainability.’ Hence the unbalanced stool.

Can we put the ‘social’ back in sustainability?

If organizations make sustainability solely about the environment, what opportunity cost do they suffer? Let’s count just a few of them….

  • ‘Green’ doesn’t appeal to the largest audience. That requires a sense of immediacy and a connection to local people and places.
  • ‘Green’ doesn’t buy a ‘social license to operate.’ That takes community and stakeholder engagement.
  • ‘Green’ doesn’t buy trust. That takes open communication and transparency.
  • ‘Green’ doesn’t foster employee engagement and productivity. That takes fair, equitable employee practices and compensation.
  • ‘Green’ doesn’t generate brand engagement or loyalty. That takes a bold, aspirational sense of purpose.

And what do all those benefits have in common? Each of them is essential to running a truly sustainable business—one that will stand the test of time. Financial performance and environmental sustainability are stronger when they’re supported by the third leg of the ‘sustainability stool’—social conscience and impact.

Leading, truly sustainable businesses operate in harmony with communities, attract and retain talent, identify and manage risk, build meaningful relationships with customers, and improve bottom line performance with motivated, satisfied and dedicated employees under responsible governance.

So how can we move beyond green to more fulsome sustainability?

First, we must measure economic, environmental and social performance across the whole organization, including down its supply chain.

Second, we must understand which are the most material indicators to our organization.

Third, we must define plans, programs, policies and processes to address risks and seize opportunities to improve across all these material impacts.

And fourth, we need to talk about it. Reporting on performance and impact is arguably the best way to continue to improve performance.

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about how Junxion can help your organization think more holistically about sustainability—through measurement, understanding, planning, design and implementation, and communications.


Shayla Meyer is a Consultant in London’s Junxion office, and is passionate about full spectrum sustainability, and the opportunities for leaders to use business as a force for good.

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