After more than five years, I believe the practice of sustainability has matured to a point that there is now a commonly accepted belief that it is comprised of three basic aspects: environmental, social and economic. My experience suggests that we all have been working very hard to learn about the first two elements (environmental and social); what they are and how they relate to other functions, processes and systems. What struck me recently was just how little has been made of, or said about, the third element– economic sustainability.
Really think about it. No one actually ever talks about this piece other than to reference it as the third leg of the sustainability stool. I guess I just figured that this topic was already covered by the standard financial filings and disclosures, or that it was someone else’s job (someone who just never showed up to the meetings), or that some how it was just a given.
Recent events have caused me to believe that we really missed something significant, that we failed to truly understand the full concept of Sustainability. It now appears that without all three pieces in place nothing is in reality sustainable, including, it seems, the entire worldwide economic system.
We have been reminded that economics cannot be under estimated or overlooked. I suspect that we will soon find that all those purely “nice to have” and the “good to do” sustainability projects will not survive long. If they do not represent a real economic gain they will all go the way of the subprime mortgage.
At its core, EHS is grounded in compliance and worker safety requirements and sustainability’s only foundation is customer expectations. That may well change as regulations are developed but that is not likely to happen until the economy turns.
For now its simple, all sustainable efforts must also be able to deliver real, tangible and quantifiable economic value or advantage. For me this litmus test helps makes sense out of a lot of crazy ideas. It is nice to know that gravity still applies.