Sustainability will be a big part of life going forward, be it business, humanity or even the environment, sustainability will take center stage. But what is sustainability all about?
Sustainability means meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In addition to natural resources, we also need social and economic resources.
Why is it so important now?
The Covid-19 crisis has pressed the reset button for all of us. It has made us rethink if we really need all the luxuries of life to stay happy. It has taught us not to take certain privileges and our loved ones for granted. But the crisis is also an opportunity, an opportunity to correct things we were doing wrong. While Covid-19 disrupted our ever-busy lives, it gave us the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. It also allowed us all some time off to reflect, gain perspective and introspect where we were heading in our lives.
On the other hand, mega cities across the world saw a huge reduction in carbon emissions. The locals in Venice, Italy reported the return of fishes to the canals which were now clearly visible due to the clear water. A clear sign of nature reclaiming what it owns. Companies made alternative work arrangements with remote work policies without productivity being hit. Schools incorporated virtual learning very quickly causing minimal disruption to education. While most of these movement restrictions allowed nature to recuperate, they were temporary. If it needs to be sustained in the long run then there needs to be a radical change in the mind-set of industry and governmental leaders, it’s only them who can lead us on a path to sustainability.
No one is sure about how the post pandemic world will look like. However, if we have to emerge stronger and more powerful, we need to shift our focus towards sustainability. But first let’s understand what are different forms of sustainability. There are majorly four pillars of sustainability- human, economic, social and environmental.
As the name suggests, human sustainability is about enhancing human capital in society. It may be through investments in holistic education, healthcare systems, social services, nutrition & food, and knowledge, all of which fall under the bracket of human sustainability. As natural resources are limited, there is a need to balance growth and attain economic well-being for one and all. For a business, it will always be regarded as a member of society that promotes business values and works for the development of human capital. Human sustainability focuses on the development of skills, knowledge and human expertise to promote the functions and sustainability of the business along with promoting well-being of communities and society.
Economic sustainability is ensuring business capital is used efficiently and effectively to generate profits for a company over a period of time. If done right, it will improve the overall standard of living of a society. While maintaining economic growth is crucial for the world economy, it should also ensure it is being done sustainably. One cannot abandon economic growth or sustainability, both of them should go hand in hand. It’s both quality and quantity that matter, isn’t it? But the economic sustainability model has received a lot of criticism as well. Critics suggest that it doesn’t take into account the natural capital (ecological systems) and social capital (social relationships) which are the pillars of economic growth. Any economic growth achieved by harming ecological and social systems, is not sustainable.
Social sustainability focuses on improving overall social equality in our society. The intention of social sustainability is to conserve social capital. This is generally done through investment and creation of services that constitute the main basis of society. It focuses on developing and promoting concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity, and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people. Social sustainability philosophies also state that whatever we do will have an impact on others in the world and that we must preserve resources for future generations. Infact, the whole principle of sustainable development addresses social and economic improvement that protects the environment and supports equality. Therefore, the economy, society, and the ecological system are mutually dependent.
Environmental sustainability is enhancing human welfare through preservation and protection of natural capital i.e., land, air, water, natural minerals etc. Initiatives, programs and ideas can be classified as environmentally sustainable only when they meet the needs of the population without compromising on the need for future generations. As described by Dunphy, Benveniste, Griffiths and Sutton, environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short or long-term, to the environment.
All in all, for us to achieve sustainability in all aspects, the four pillars must be given equal importance. While some of them may overlap, it is important to identify the specific type and ensure they are adhered to. If businesses count themselves as a valuable part of society, then they must invest and take strategic decisions to effectively incorporate sustainability into their business philosophies.