Business sustainability a matter of definition

Most people think their workplace is sustainable, but does the boss remembering birthdays count?

Responses to a poll on businesses and sustainability revealed a variety of definitions, from achieving comprehensive environmental and carbon neutral certifications to cutting staff, insulating the office and looking after pensioners.

One respondent said their business was more sustainable because they were emailing people rather than phoning them to reduce phone bills and staff time.

Another said they were more sustainable because they were calling rather than emailing.

Little wonder customers sometimes react to sustainability claims with faintly raised eyebrows. Not helping matters is the enormous range of tools and certifications on offer, from full carbon neutrality to tools that count social and financial measures, such as absenteeism and return on equity.

Sixty per cent of respondents to the 2012 Sustainable Business Council/Fairfax Business and Consumer Survey said their organisation behaved sustainably (which the question defined as looking after profits, the environment and people).

Of the rest, 14 per cent said their organisation did not behave sustainably and 26 per cent did not know.

More than 700 people answered the question. Respondents were then asked how their organisation was sustainable, and, later, what operational changes had been made to cut energy costs or environmental impact or to become more sustainable.

The broad range of responses does not mean that sustainability itself was a fuzzy concept, says Sustainable Business Network chief executive Rachel Brown.

Experts give a range of views but there are three widely agreed limbs – making a positive financial, social and environment impact.

Professor Juliet Roper, associate dean of sustainability of the Waikato University Management School, said sustainability required balancing the three and not prioritising short-term financial gains.

Longitudinal research revealed that in reality many businesses cut investment in social and environmental good practices during the global financial crisis.

Roper said demands and expectations of what counted as sustainability kept evolving but some things clearly did not count. For example, taking credit for simply meeting legal requirements, such as those prohibiting waste discharges or requiring pesticides to be reduced.

Entries are open for the 2012 Sustainable 60 awards, promoting sustainable business practices.

Along with five category winners, this year the awards will rank the top 10 sustainable organisations.

Go to to download the entry criteria.