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Achieving sustainability in business – managing the complexity of profit, planet and people

March 3, 2017

Business sustainability is a great opportunity for start-ups and small businesses to focus on. Not only is it a way to create long-term, sustainable success, but it’s also a way to attract employees (younger generations expressly value sustainability), investors and business partners.

Let’s briefly look at what business sustainability is and then get into some practical tips for how to make it reality for your business.

What business sustainability is

Business sustainability is a complex concept. For a long time, sustainability was largely seen as energy efficiency efforts, reducing the use of and impact on natural resources. In parallel, the concept of CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility grew, focusing on ethical behaviours of organizations and how they relate to the societies in which they operate.

Business Sustainability is a combination of both of these two concepts – and more. You could say that it’s about achieving long-term success through the responsible handling of all resources the organization depends on to be relevant and successful over time.

A popular way of describing this is “to manage the triple bottom lines of People, Planet and Profits”. Let’s have a look at each of them to explore how they are relevant to long-term success and how they are dependent on each other.

The 3 bottom lines

1. People

Included in here are all the people the organization is dependent on or whom they impact in their business practices. This would be employees, suppliers, business partners and other stakeholders, as well as, and very importantly, people in societies where the organization operates and hence have an impact on.

2. Planet

This covers how the organization uses and impacts the earth’s limited resources. This is about the company’s carbon footprint, energy use, pollution levels, travel practices etc.

3. Profits

This is the bottom line that everyone is most familiar with, the financial bottom line, the profit that is made.

The challenges of business sustainability and the 3 bottom lines

The issue many businesses face is that these three areas aren’t getting equal focus, they simply don’t have equal importance in the company’s practices.

A for-profit business for example often prioritises the Profits bottom line, to ensure that the monthly, quarterly and annual reporting deliver the best possible numbers to continue to achieve shareholder support and investment. For that reason, decisions may be made that are detrimental to People (eg. cost reduction, layoffs).

A not-for-profit organisation on the other hand may have a different focus, where natural or human resources are the main focus, without too much focus on the financial side of things. As a result, decisions may be made that are too costly, which means they are not able to continue to do good as the money has run out.

The key to sustainability in business is therefore to carefully consider all the resources in business decisions and practices that are needed for long-term success, to ensure that none of the valuable resources “dry up”.

9 Steps to achieving sustainability in business

To help set your business on the path to sustainability, here are 9 steps to take;

1. Be a strategic thinker

Think strategically and have a clear business strategy (your competitive edge) that is sustainable.

2. Set clear goals

Have both short and long-term business goals, get the balance right between the two. Have short-term goals that help you deliver confidence and results now and long-term goals that help you stay the course and deliver results over time.

3. Determine what your business is dependent on

Identify and understand the human, natural and financial resources that your business is dependent on. If you have employees, involve them in the process to get as complete a picture as possible;

  • Name your human resources (your stakeholders) – individuals, groups and societies that are impacted by your business practices and/or whom you are dependent on. Consider what they need, to be able to support your business vision, mission and goals – now and in the future. This could for example include considering what skills and capabilities your future employees need to have.
  • List the natural resources you need – and how you can reduce them to minimize the impact on the earth’s limited resources. Ask yourself questions such as: Can we move to renewal energy sources? Can we print less paper? Can we recycle more?
  • Work out what financial resources you need to run your business sustainably. Ask questions such as: What profits do we need to make? How many new customers do we need to attract? How much sales?

4. Consider the big picture

Review the overall impact of decisions, actions and behaviours by creating a decision template that assess the effect on all three bottom lines – People, Planet and Profit – both short and long-term.

5. Develop good habits

Create behavioural habits that support sustainability thinking. Be observant, listen and be empathetic, be curious, respectfully challenge the status quo.

6. Lead inclusively

Practice a very inclusive leadership. Sustainability demands open dialogue, healthy challenging and new thinking to reach new creative solutions. Only by generously involving others will you get all the different viewpoints that are needed to think differently and creatively.

7. Share responsibility

Share the responsibility for sustainability. Talk to your employees/partners about sustainability and how you can achieve sustainable, long-term success together by carefully managing ALL the resources you are dependent on.

8. Make it everybody’s goal

Include Sustainability (managing the three bottom lines: People, Planet and Profit) in everyone’s individual and shared goals. And make sure you have a way of measuring it.

9. Spread the word

Communicate your sustainability commitment, both internally and externally. Sustainability and sustainable business practices are increasingly becoming an expectation, so find ways of communicating what actions you are taking to respectfully consider both People and Planet, while delivering Profits.

Final thoughts

As you see, Business Sustainability is very much about managing the complexity of resources. It’s not easy, it’s not straightforward, but it is forward thinking and it’s creative and it can deliver sustainable results over time so it’s an absolute must for anyone that is serious about long-term success.

With Business Sustainability as with everything else, things keep changing. Use Sustainability as a business strategy for long-term success – and keep reviewing your actions and behaviours at regular intervals to make sure your impact assessments and strategic actions are still relevant and delivering the outcome you want.

About the author

Thhis guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn. They are leadership development experts with a focus on future trends for leadership and the award-winning authors of “Leading Teams – 10 Challenges: 10 Solutions”. Download your free chapter at www.leadingteamsbook.com