Envisioning a Sustainable Enterprise

The S-word gets a lot of use around Portland. Every business seems to have a ‘sustainability initiative’. The question of telling a company’s ‘sustainability story’ holds prime real estate in the minds of many a marketer. Heck, you have several sustainability networking events to choose from every month.

With the S-word in such common use, I’d be curious to know how we each envision a sustainable enterprise. Before I share my brief answer, I’ll highlight a comment that catalyzed the question.

Recently, Brian Setzler, owner of Trilibrium a progressive and conscientious CPA firm, denied his company had the right to claim the highly coveted title ‘sustainable business’:

“As a stickler for precise language when it matters, I’ve had to correct well-meaning introductions [at speaking events] claiming Trilibrium’s sustainability. Our company is sustainably-driven and eco-conscious with triple bottom line values, but I have no idea whether we are sustainable.

I’ve heard people refer to certain farming practices as sustainable. Really, over what time frame and under what circumstances? Will these “sustainable” farms hold up over 5 generations? What about 500 or 1000? If not, are they really ‘sustainable?'”

Brian’s prompt coincided neatly with a program I’d just enrolled in: Willamette University’s Sustainable Enterprise Certificate (SEC). Before the program’s first session, SEC participants were challenged with this pre-class homework assignment; ‘How do you envision a sustainable enterprise?’

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such an entity, nor heard of one. Stretching my mind back across time to when the only human enterprise was the tribe, I doubt I’d find an appropriate example.

It’s tempting to focus on hunter-gatherer tribes as icons of pure sustainability. Such groups would be too small to make a lasting impact on the environment. But countless tribes –and civilizations- have collapsed over the eons (see Jared Diamond’s Collapse), so they can’t provide a satisfactory example. We must stretch farther into the realm of ideal and theory.

What would a sustainable enterprise look like today?

The triple bottom line exhorts balance between economic viability, social conscience and environmental responsibility. Ideally, an enterprise that assigned equal importance to these three priorities would have a neutral impact on the environment (atoning for each pound of waste generated, kilowatt-hour of electricity expended, liter of water consumed, etc.), it would improve the lives of every person whom interacted with it (paying fair compensation to employees, supporting their families, and making a positive contribution to the immediate community), and it would make a responsible profit (no smoke-and-mirrors accounting tricks, no tax avoidance mechanisms, and no leveraging the future to pay the present).

That model seems as unlikely to occur as a societal reversion to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

In which case, the sustainable enterprise serves as a hypothetical counterpoint to the utopian legend of the hunter-gatherer existence. Although neither may be feasible today, each occupies a distant point on the far reaches of the spectrum of possibility. They’re a long way off, yet each provides a starting point for a discussion of our vision, without which, we’re just adding to the lip-service heaped on the weary S-word.

Your thoughts?
What’s your vision of a sustainable enterprise?
What would you add or subtract from the vision I’ve shared?

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