The three pillars of sustainability


Sustainability can have different meanings to different people in the context of corporate social responsibility. One of the best definitions we’ve seen was outlined at the 2005 World Summit on Social Development, which presented sustainability as an integration of social, economic, and environmental factors.

The Environmental Protection Agency has echoed a similar sentiment, pointing out that:

 “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

At FrontStream, our focus on sustainability means working with companies to help them develop plans that combine long-term profitability with maximum social responsibility and environmental care. Following some basic principles of sustainability can help your business forge a path toward larger corporate social responsibility goals.

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

One way to look at sustainability is by considering the Three Pillars of Sustainability. Under this approach, companies look for a balanced approach to long-term social, environmental and economic objectives.

Another way to look at this is through the concept of the Triple Bottom Line — People, Planet, and Profit.

PEOPLE: The Social Pillar of Sustainability

The social aspect of sustainability focuses on balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. Different companies do this in different ways, with some of the most successful corporate sustainability programs taking an approach that ties in well with their corporate missions:

At Walmart, social initiatives include market-specific skills training programs, sustainable agriculture and food donations, worker safety initiatives, and women empowerment initiatives.

Nestle has committed to addressing the community impacts arising as a result of their operations including water scarcity, health and wellness of communities around their factories, and land management that honors usage rights of local people.

Verizon supports its social and community efforts through volunteer grants, matching gifts, disaster relief and recovery programs, and cause collection efforts where employees donate time, money, and material goods. The company is also spearheading the introduction of energy-saving technologies to schools, medical clinics, and senior living facilities.

PLANET: The Environmental Pillar of Sustainability

Environmental sustainability occurs when processes, systems and activities reduce the environmental impact of an organizations facilities, products and operations.

Herman Daly, a pioneer in environmental sustainability, proposed that:

  1. For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration
  2. For pollution, the rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment
  3. For nonrenewable resources, the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource

At Walmart environmental initiatives include increasing imports from green and yellow factories, a goal of zero waste, plastic bag reduction, and initiatives to reduce carbon footprint by managing energy consumption.

Nestle identified four priority areas to manage their environmental sustainability: water, agricultural raw materials, manufacturing and distribution, and packaging specific to their food and beverage business.

Verizon’s initiatives towards environment sustainability include a record-breaking year in electronic gear and telecom equipment recycling, reducing energy use by providing employees with flexibility in where they work, reductions in carbon intensity, finding more efficient and eco-friendly solutions for its fleet, greener packaging, using alternative sources of energy for its cell towers, and many other initiatives to reduce the impact on the environment. 

PROFIT: The Economic Pillar of Sustainability

Economic sustainability is used to define strategies that promote the utilization of socio-economic resources to their best advantage. A sustainable economic model proposes an equitable distribution and efficient allocation of resources. The idea is to promote the use of those resources in an efficient and responsible way that provides long-term benefits and establishes profitability. A profitable business is more likely to remain stable and continue to operate from one year to the next.

The nice thing about taking a total approach to sustainability is that if you focus on social and environmental issues, profitability will often follow. Social initiatives have an impact on consumer behavior and employee performance, while environmental initiatives such as energy efficiency and pollution mitigation can have a direct impact on reducing waste.

Economic sustainability involves making sure the business makes a profit, but also that business operations don’t create social or environmental issues that would harm the long-term success of the company.

Defining sustainability and corporate social responsibility by using the Three Pillars of Sustainability can help a company determine its own sustainable and successful road. Following these general guidelines and learning from the examples of other companies will let you determine the best path to take for your own company.

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