What exactly do we mean by ‘sustainability’? It used to be clear: the focus was on energy efficiency, not using too much water, and generally being environmentally friendly. Recent articles and discussions, however, suggest that the use of the term has broadened.

Defining sustainability

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, argued in a lecture last year that it is about social responsibility in a broad sense. Polman said that his personal definition was that the future of your children and their children was more important than your personal greed, but this still sounds very ‘me-focused’. What if the issue will not affect your children or grandchildren? Humanitarian crises on the other side of the world may feel a bit like this, but are still important.

Later in his lecture, however, Polman went further, arguing that sustainable must include protecting human rights, and that there was an economic as well as moral argument for that. Polman made clear that he believes that those who have enough have a responsibility to help those who do not, and this is the foundation upon which ‘sustainable’ must be built.

Polman’s arguments almost sound new. However, commentators have been grappling with this issue for some time now. For example, one article, back in 2011, described a sustainable business model as one that was commercially successful, fit for the future, and part of a sustainable society. This means that it must be able to keep going within a fair and thriving economic system that is not causing environmental or social damage. For example, it must not rely on unfair trade terms, or ‘free goods’ from natural sources that cannot or are not being replaced.

Unpicking the definition

We suggest that this final part of the definition may be the most important. It also has a very wide-ranging, and probably evolving, meaning.

For example, there has been much in the news recently about pay gaps. First there was the BBC’s disclosure of the salaries and the resulting ‘gender pay gap’ row as female presenters and other staff realised that they were somewhat underpaid compared with their male peers. More recently, the HR industry body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) and the think tank the High Pay Centre pointed out that by the middle of the first week of January, the average CEO had already earned the median UK annual pay of £28,758. January 4th was promptly dubbed ‘Fat Cat Thursday’ as a result.

The question is, are these practices sustainable? In other words, are they fair, and can they be continued in the longer term? The answer is probably not.

Similarly, there is reportedly a huge skills gap around the world. Employers report being unable to recruit people with the skills they need. But the unemployment figures suggest that the number of people looking for work is similar to the number of empty posts. The issue is that the skills of those looking do not match with the skill requirements. Surely matching the two is not beyond the bounds of possibility? Some employers are now recognising the issue and offering programmes like ‘return to work’ schemes for people, mostly women, who have taken a career break for some reason, often to care for children or an older relative. These programmes provide skills updates and mentoring opportunities, with a view to improving skills, confidence and opportunities for those who have been out of the workforce for a while. There is a cost to employers of providing this sort of programme, but it is probably more than outweighed by the benefits of having access to a pool of experienced and capable workers.

Other workforce changes

There are other changes to how we work that may also be contributing to more sustainable business models. The rise of remote working, for example, means that companies can source teams from around the world without increasing their carbon footprint from commuting and other travel. Crowd-sourcing and collaborative consumption are also models that contribute to sustainability. These two concepts are very similar, and bring together peers with something to offer, and a need. By sharing, both needs can be satisfied, without further cost to the environment.

In some ways, it feels as though workforce issues have overtaken environmental friendliness as the main issue in sustainability. However, we argue that they are two sides of the same coin: both are about how we, as a society, use the resources at our command, whether energy, water or people. Sustainability demands thought about this in a whole range of ways.

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