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We talk a lot about sustainability and sustainable principles. But what does that mean exactly? And how do you measure sustainability?

A simple definition of sustainability

According to the Brundtland Commission, which first introduced the concept back in 1987, sustainability is ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. 

Sustainable development principles

When most people think of sustainability, they think of the environment. But there's more to it than that. The three underlying principles of sustainability are environmental, economic and social.

Environmental sustainability

Since the industrial revolution, human activities have caused increasing harm to the natural world and ecosystems upon which we ourselves depend. So much so scientists have dubbed this era the ‘Anthropocene’ If this continues unchecked then it could potentially result in our own demise, or at significantly lower standard of living for many people worldwide. Therefore, with our sustainability hats on, we have to modify our behaviour to protect the environment for future generations. 

Social sustainability

Social sustainability means ensuring that universal human rights are upheld and the basic needs of all people are met. People are able to lead productive and safe lives free from discrimination and exploitation.

It’s difficult to achieve environmental sustainability without first achieving social sustainability as, in general, more equal and inclusive societies make better decisions. An example of this is the key role indigenous people play in maintaining ecosystems.

Economic sustainability

Economic sustainability covers maintaining and improving standards of living. People have access to the resources they require, financial and other, to meet their needs. Economic systems are upheld and economic activities, such as jobs, are available to everyone. Economic sustainability seeks prosperity through growth, but not at the expense of social or environmental sustainability. 

canoe river

Sustainable business practices, the triple bottom line

For a business to be considered sustainable it needs to incorporate all three of the above principles. In economics, this is referred to as the triple bottom line: profit, people and the planet.

Businesses, at least in the current system, are the lynchpin of economic activity, creating jobs and wealth. Of course, they need to make money in order to survive, but they shouldn’t do so at the expense of social and economic sustainability. Whereas many business leaders are tempted to put profits over people and the planet, with our sustainability hats on, this way of thinking is, well, unsustainable. 

However, measuring the profitability of a company is fairly straightforward. Measuring a company’s environmental and social impact, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. 

How to measure environmental and social sustainability

One yardstick, growing in popularity, is measuring your carbon footprint, or the amount of carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gas equivalents) emitted as a result of your operations.

When this number has been calculated, it’s then possible to offset carbon emissions through offset programmes such as tree planting. This is a measure we take, and we’re happy to announce (humble brag coming up) we remove more carbon than we emit, so that we’re actually what’s referred to as carbon negative

Beyond carbon negativity, there are a number of certifications and measures that can be used to measure environmental, and social, impact:

  • B-Corp certification - Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. To be certified, businesses are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. 
  • Cradle to cradle - C2C is a holistic economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not just efficient but essentially waste-free. These frameworks assess for the whole product life-cycle, from raw material to production to finished products and to product afterlife (i.e., recycling).

  • ISO 14001 - An international standard that specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system. It provides a framework that an organisation can follow, rather than establishing environmental performance requirements.
  • Rainforest Alliance - an organisation and accreditation committed to protecting forests, improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities, promote their human rights, and help them mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.

Sustainable vs eco-friendly vs green

So what's the difference between being sustainable vs eco-friendly or green? Well, the latter two are vague terms roughly referring to a product or service being gentle on the environment. As we've examined above, sustainability is more complex than that, covering both social and economic factors also.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, the UN published a framework consisting of 17 interconnected goals that form a "shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future." By 2030, the aim is to increase standard of living worldwide, promoting health, education and human rights, whilst simultaneously tackling climate change and protecting the environment. No small task!

How to be more sustainable

Sustainability isn’t just the prerogative of businesses and governments. It’s up to us as individuals, especially in wealthier countries, to do our bit as well.The advantages are numerous, benefiting us in the nearer and shorter term.

Simple steps like not wasting water, energy or food are easily achieved and benefits us economically too. Then, going a little deeper, changing how often you travel and the mode of transport, switching to a reduced meat diet and, of course, consuming consciously. 

For a good place to start, see the top ten ways you can reduce your carbon footprint.