Sustainability - what is the true meaning?

16th of December 2015
Sustainability - what is the true meaning?
Sustainability - what is the true meaning?

How do companies and customers interpret the term ‘sustainability’ today? And how has its meaning changed over recent years? Ann Laffeaty asks manufacturers their views.

Sustainability is all about caring for the environment. It is also about corporate social responsibility. But then again it encompasses practices such as recycling, reducing energy and minimising waste. Confused?

So are the rest of us. It seems that we all have a different understanding of what sustainability means and the term has evolved considerably since it was first coined. So what does sustainability actually mean to companies and their customers today? And how far removed is this from its original meaning?

The term sustainability encompasses a variety of topics according to Metsä Tissue’s UK and Ireland sales director Mark Dewick. “It includes supply chain management and working towards a better climate along with ethical business practices, improving safety at work and contributing to society,” he said.

“However 20 years ago I think consumers regarded sustainability as simply a matter of recycling cans and packets. At the same time, most end-users felt that it had nothing to do with them and that sustainability was the remit of larger companies and nations.”

He says the change in people’s perceptions has evolved alongside changes in our working practices.  “Twenty years ago, everyone worked with a phone and a desk and meetings were held face-to-face while company car policies were based on the cost of petrol per litre,” he said.

“Nowadays teleconferences have become the norm; working from home is common and high-speed telecommunications underpin everything we do. Meanwhile, we have come to understand that vehicle emissions need to be minimised. Sustainability policies have had to evolve to keep up with this pace of change.”

He says there has been a growing recognition that sustainability belongs to everyone. “With this has come an understanding that end-users can demand compliance from their suppliers to facilitate their own CSR strategy.”

According to Dewick, traceability is one of today’s hottest sustainability topics. “Consumers and businesses are increasingly interested in the origin of the goods they purchase,” he said. “We believe in future they will continue to favour companies that can prove transparency along with a solid sustainability performance.”

Corporate sustainability is all about creating value for people and nature says Lena Söderholm, SCA’s global brand communication manager. “This creates a benefit for the environment and the community as well as our customers, consumers, investors, employees and other stakeholders,” she said.

She feels that while sustainability is still very much linked to the environment in the eyes of the customer, companies and corporations are shifting their focus.

“When SCA first published a sustainability report in 1998 it was named the Environmental Report,” she said. “In 2002 it became the Environmental and Social Report and since 2006 we have published a Sustainability Report in which environmental, social, financial and governmental aspects are covered. This reflects how the general view of sustainability has evolved.”

SCA’s sustainability focus has evolved in line with this, she says. “Much of our work in the 1990s was targeted towards environmental issues such as CO2 reductions but over the years there has been a growing focus on social and business aspects,” she said.

According to Söderholm, companies need to be adaptable when it comes to their sustainability policies. “It is crucial to have a continuous dialogue with all stakeholders along with an understanding of trends and the business environment to ensure a sustainability strategy remains relevant over time,” she said.

Supply chain management and business ethics are two of today’s key sustainability issues, she believes. “Employee health and safety is also crucial while climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are dominating on the environmental side,” she said. “And water scarcity is a growing issue. You can’t really choose one single aspect that is important today since sustainability is too complex a topic.”

Transparency vital

She agrees with Dewick that transparency is becoming increasingly important. “Transparent reporting will soon be demanded by all stakeholders as the awareness of addressing sustainability issues continues to grow,” she said.

And she feels more emphasis will be placed on sustainability in the future. “Companies need to truly integrate sustainability into their business models to be relevant in tomorrow’s society,” said Söderholm. “Corporations have an important role to play in solving societal needs.”

Nviro marketing manager Carl Robinson concurs that sustainability is still synonymous with terms such as ‘green’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ in many people’s minds.

“However sustainability should focus attention on the end result: we must modify our behaviour from a business, societal and financial viewpoint to ensure we don’t compromise safety and the quality of life for future generations,” he said.

“At the same time, environmental impact is a critical element and we need to manage materials and natural resources responsibly along with health and social aspects.”

He says sustainability has become increasingly prominent in the corporate agendas of clients. “It has lost its ‘nice to have’ status, becoming instead  ‘something we need to have if we’re to be seen to be responsible’,” he said.

According to Robinson today’s growing focus on issues such as carbon footprint, energy use and procurement policies is a major step forward from what he terms the ‘greenwashing’ culture of the 1990s.

“Greenwashing made many people cynical about companies that claimed to be kind to the environment,” he said. “We welcome the attention that is now being placed on the livelihoods of workers as part of the debate about sustainable communities and economics.”

He believes that any sustainability policy needs to be embedded throughout a business. “Otherwise it may be forgotten the moment that things look tough,” he said. “Sustainability is not just a fad: accreditation to standards such as ISO 14001 is important because it holds a company to its commitment. But sustainability shouldn’t be merely an exercise in compliance, it should be a way of life – both personally and professionally.”

He feels that the most important aspect of sustainability today is making sure the concept itself is sustainable. “We can’t afford to become desensitised to the need for action or be daunted by the scale of the challenge in moving towards true sustainability,” he said.

Linda Schroedter, responsible for environmental PR at Kärcher, also feels that the understanding of sustainability has changed. “The term used to be clearly connected to the environment and nature, and even today sustainability is often used as a synonym for environmental protection,” she said. “But there is a lot more to the concept and factors such as social responsibility have become an accepted part of sustainability today.

“There is also an economical dimension to sustainability – one that is driven by topics such as social standards at the supply chain and the challenge of integrating sustainability into the core business.”

According to Schroedter, factors such as reducing energy, water and detergent consumption are central considerations for Kärcher. “Our motto is to achieve more through efficiency and offer this to our customer,” she said.

She believes that any company’s sustainability strategy should be a good fit with that company’s values and its goals while also being realistic. “Otherwise the sustainability policy will not appear credible,” she said. “Sustainability has to be internalised by everyone and transferred into the DNA of the company.”

Local issues

She believes that sustainability will be increasingly integrated into companies’ core businesses in the future. “Sustainability topics will also shift further towards more local issues,” she said.

“Instead of having one central sustainability strategy it will become important to assess which issues are of most interest to our production sites and which topics concern our customers. This will be a challenge since it will lead to sustainability strategies becoming less clear-cut.”

Much of what is written about sustainability can be both confusing and contradictory according to Diversey Care’s regional sustainability director Ed Roberts. “Some even suggest that sustainability is the latest business ‘fad’ and will soon be replaced by the next one,” he said. “It is true sustainability has developed from the original ‘green’ concept and continues to go through further iterations and definitions. But as more organisations adopt sustainability practices and offer more sustainable products and services, any competitive advantage starts to diminish and this requires businesses to differentiate themselves in other ways.”

He says there are two compelling reasons why sustainability - whatever its interpretation - will remain core to future business operations. “The global economic recession demonstrated to even the most eco-sceptic of business leaders they could operate efficiently with reduced resources – and that this in turn would bolster earnings,” he said.

“Meanwhile, the fact  the world population is increasing means that a greater demand is being placed on finite resources such as oil, with the likely consequence of reduced availability and increased cost of such resources. So businesses need to become even more efficient and sustainable as a result.”

According to Roberts, the core essence of sustainability remains rooted in the environment. “However there are few if any products that can be labelled either sustainable or ‘environmentally friendly’ – though some may be more sustainable or more environmentally-friendly than others,” he said.

“For example, is an electric car environmentally friendly? Depending on what is being measured it may be better for the environment than a gas-guzzler, but what about when compared with public transport, a bicycle, or walking?

“If we truly want to be more sustainable we need to develop holistic sustainability: that is to focus less on the sustainability of ‘it’, but on the sustainability of ‘what it does’.”

UK managing director of Facilicom Jan Hein Hemke agrees that the meaning of sustainability has expanded to cover more than just ‘green’ issues. “A healthy return is needed in order for a business to be sustainable,” he said. “A company must be able to invest in order to continue to provide employment along with goods and services to clients.”

As far as Facilicom’s customers are concerned, he says sustainability means that the company operates in a manner that shows it considers the environment, its people and its financial viability. “In other words they want to know we’re going to be here to work with them for years to come.”

And he feels that the most important aspect of sustainability today is the understanding that it is everyone’s responsibility. “It is not something that can be left to another organisation or someone else,” he said. “There are so many critical steps in the process that it has to be a team effort.”


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