So you think sustainable business is just about being green?

I love words. I particularly like the way that old words are given new life and meaning when deployed in a new context. Employee “engagement”, “responsibility”, business “ethics” are examples and so too the current vogue with “sustainable” business.  I view sustainability from a broader perspective, however, than carbon footprints and recycling, and I do not wish to over-simplify or undermine the whole “green” business agenda; far from it actually; I am passionate about “green” business practices and they form an important part of my holistic (and there’s another for you!) approach to “sustainable” business.

So what is the Ethiconomics view of sustainable business?  Essentially, there are 6 key areas;

  • People and profits
  • Self and collective responsibility
  • Collaboration and competition
  • Stakeholders and shareholder management
  • Influence “Up” (ethical investment)
  • Ecological thinking.


These areas are the very building blocks of ethiconomical business and THAT is sustainable business; I shall briefly elaborate on some of the above.

Firstly, a business has to be profitable. In the short term there may be the option to run at losses or to supplement revenue with loans and grants or shareholder investment but in the long term, profits allow for re-investment into the business (as well as paying wages etc) and cannot be ignored. Ok, some business models, charities for example, are spared some of this fiscal responsibility, but investors, including fund raisers and philanthropists, require that an investment is being managed professionally and commercially astutely. In my experience there is too little “social” in commercial enterprise and too little “commerce” in social enterprise. Far too often I come across well-meaning people with a socially-valuable idea but with no concept of business management and entrepreneurs that pay lip-service to social responsibility. Sustainability means effective profit creation and management.

People are key here. It is the attitude, skills, motivation, fulfilment, creativity and inclination of the people in your business that will drive it forward (or at least create the differentiator between you and your competitors). People ARE business; make no mistake about that. If you want your business to grow, you and your people must grow too. If you want your business to last, then a long term view that incorporates the culture and values of your business must be developed so as to encourage development of you and your people.  Everything changes and continuous improvement, a key to sustainability, must involve people development.

Another cornerstone to sustainability is responsibility; personal and collective, which, in more familiar parlance, can be recognised as “corporate responsibility”. If you say it, do it! Too many companies, which at the end of the day means too many people, talk about corporate responsibility but fail to integrate it completely into operational strategy. Spin, rhetoric and PR. The whole issue of corporate responsibility is, in its own way, very much part of the zeitgeist but how much of these “policies” is actually delivered? How much is it put on the back-burner because of the “economic conditions”? I would argue much. Corporate (collective) responsibility is more than a policy for the cupboard or a cheque to the local cricket team. Here again it is people that matter because it is people – shareholders, directorate, management, staff et al, that make and deploy these policies. It is the values of the individuals who are ultimately responsible that dictates the genuine commitment to corporate responsibility programs. I can tell you one thing that is an absolute truth here; responsibility is NOT for someone else. You are responsible for your own thoughts and actions. You are responsible for your performance. You are responsible for your values. You are the agents of change – if you want it that is – and if you do not, then be prepared to be replaced. Replaced by others that ARE prepared to be authentic and who are committed to genuine values; those are prepared to lead change. Sustainability means evolving to cater for change. In fact, to protect in any way against the vagaries of the economic climate then a whole new way of doing business must evolve and responsibility at a personal level is, I believe, key to this evolution. Consider how you trade, who you trade with, what values they represent, how they conduct themselves. Do they truly reflect your values or are you compromising for the short term gain? Sustainable business means surviving and growing so I recommend that you understand your values and deploy these in all of your working relationships. Walk your “ethical” talk and find partners, staff and investors that share your vision. Do not be tempted by the short term; sustainable businesses are in it for the long term.

That brings me nicely onto my third topic; that of collaboration. I have written in this magazine previously about this and recommend that you search out the full articles but essentially sustainable business requires sustainable business models.  Innovative models, if you like, but not necessarily new ones. Collaboration itself is not new and neither is competition but in a global economy where job stability is reduced, where change is increasing at a pace never known before, where competition can come from thousands of miles away (via the internet etc) and where cheaper labour in the emerging markets is threatening the whole base of the Western trade, collaboration will become increasingly important. Whether this is a joint venture, short-term partnership or a long term strategic alliance is a moot point. We, you, will have to find increasingly creative and mutually beneficial arrangements to sell your products and services; the times of competition based on price will not sustain you. Understanding your unique proposition, your unique value and values and then finding like-minded partners will become increasingly important to your long term survival whether these partners were competitors, suppliers or previously unknown to you does not matter. What matters is that you find ways to work together, with the required mutual sharing of input and rewards (which do not always have to be strictly financial) will allow you to enter markets that you alone would not be able to crack.

Finally, a quick word on how to do this, which incidentally brings my piece full circle, so to speak. Think “ecologically”. What does this mean? Well, it’s simple; just apply this quick test.

  • Is this good for me?
  • Is this good for my group? (business, family, etc)
  • Is this good for my community?
  • Is this good for the environment?

Ask yourself these questions and be honest with your responses.

Sustainable business means a business that can survive. It means a business that can evolve. It means a business that is aware, responsible and ethical. A business connected to its values, to its stakeholders AND to its environment.


The inspiration for this article is taken from “An A – Z Introduction to Ethiconomics” by Philip A Birch

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