Origin of the term and meaning
The term sustainability has experienced a boom in use. Most of the time a wish for durability, constancy is expressed with it. But since 1713 sustainable business has a much broader meaning. The wish for sustainability is a child of fear, crisis and difficult times. Much so in the early 18th century when, at that time the imminently important wood - which was used in 1713 in equivalent functions to today’s oil/electricity (energy, heating, cooking), concrete (buildings, mining) and metal (carriages etc.)- seemed to disappear or at least to be in very short supply due to depletion. Wood prices, by consequence rose soared.
The definition of the term and the procedures for sustainable business originate from the beginning of the industrial age. 1713 Carl of Carlowitz in his capacity as “Oberberghauptmann” for the silver mining (∼ minister for silver mining) in Freiburg / Saxony - when problems with the depletion the resource “wood” occurred – has defined the three basic pillars of sustainability:
- Ecological balance
- Economic security
- Social Responsibility
In his oeuvre “Sylvicultura oeconomica” he explains that and how the cultivation of forests should be sustainable.
- Not more trees should be slashed than can replaced by natural growth. Clever person he was, he at the same time added the advices, how this can be reached. He further demanded:
- Not to seek short term profits
- That industry should operate in harmony with nature and not against it and that industry (business today) should serve the society
- That poor people had a right for food and support
- That technical progress should help to preserve the rare resource “wood” by isolating houses and using more efficient smelting ovens
- That wood shall be replaced by other sources of energy
Claims which could not be more up-to-date today ! This is no miracle since Carl of Carlowitz was no a ecological dreamer. Based on his experience in Saxony he realised that a prospering economy can only experience sustained growth when economy, ecology and social responsibility complement each other. This perception remained in essence the same until now. Sustainability is by far no new but age-old – a virtually self-explanatory and logic – philosophy for businesses and the persons in charge.
Sustainability today: The value sociatey
In principle Carl of Carlowitz’s definition of sustainability is still valid today. What has changed is that with globalisation a much better exchange of information became possible; the consumption of materials and energy has increased by orders of magnitudes; with a possible climate change a large proportion of the western society experienced the wish to protect the environment by changing its behaviour. Products are bought more often if they are produced under “fair”, i.e. human conditions. Company’s are expected to accept their responsibility towards society beyond short term profit thinking. A value society developed which is still very price contentious but which demands more and more that companies also fulfil their wish for sustainable products in addition. The demand for “sustainability” penetrates all actors: Politicians claim it as well as companies demand it from their suppliers, financial analysts rate companies more than ever according to their “sustainability” and consumers are said to buy “sustainable”.
Systematic implementation of sustainability with the help of tools and facts
But what sustainability exactly is, how sustainability can be achieved is not explicitly defined. What we have today are relatively easy to use and systematic tools with which certain aspects of sustainability can be elaborated more or less scientifically. In the sector of ecology that is for example the life cycle assessment, with which products and organisations can estimate their environmental impact. In the sector of social sustainability there are various certification labels, which cover certain aspects of production (fair trade, child labour). In our part of the globe organisational health, gender questions and social responsibility of companies are important factors. Economic sustainability can for example be practiced by long term interpretation of common economic performance indicators or risk analyses. There are several instruments for example the Global Reporting Initiative which do a satisfactory job as sustainability checklists. By consequence today it is possible to assist companies in their search for optimal sustainability performance by the means of systematic tools. Cost reduction and efficiency increase accompany do often accompany better sustainability performance too. Important is: The approach has to be systematic and fact based. Simple publicity would soon unmasked and branded as “greenwashing”.