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What is Sustainable Business?

What is Sustainable Business?

Essay by: Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director, SMSBF

“What is sustainable business?”, is an often-asked question. Perhaps another way of putting it is to ask: What’s the difference between, “sustainable business”, and “plain ol’ business”?

The best way I’ve found to get at these answers starts with what I learned a number of years ago from Dr. Deb Steketee, Chair, Sustainable Business, Professor of Sustainable Business at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. Dr. Steketee introduced me to “systems thinking” which is the basis for understanding sustainable business; it’s also the basis for understanding the triple bottom line of people, planet, profit, or as we think of it at SMSBF, social, environmental and economic justice (SEE justice).

Systems thinking recognizes the interconnectedness of all things. In other words, nothing happens, within the cosmos without some other thing happening. The whole of the biosphere – the eleven-mile-thick band that forms the exterior of planet Earth – is interconnected. We see the truth of this reality played out each and every day. It’s manifest in the ongoing environmental disasters about which we hear every day, most of which are caused by human behavior: the way we practice business, or organize work. This brings us to understanding the difference between plain ol’ business and sustainable business.

Business, as practiced today, and within what I refer to as the “global capitalist framework”, is largely predicated on liberalism’s (i.e., the philosophical framework that emerged nearly 400 years ago) notion of human behavior.

Under liberal thinking, human behavior is based on two poles: on the one side is fear and on the other side is acquisitiveness. Liberal thinkers saw human behavior as being explained on the one hand by a fear of not having things, and on the other by the notion that happiness is defined by having stuff. It is this notion of having stuff as being equivalent to happiness that begets consumer culture. Defining human behavior in such linear terms fails to explain why it is a person will risk his or her life by running into a burning building to save another human being. While it’s hard to believe folks as smart as John Locke would have overlooked this reality, what we have today is a way of organizing business that overlooks the same thing: there’s more to life than just having stuff.

Today, we live under a recapitulation of liberal thinking, or “neoliberalism” as it is known in certain circles. Neoliberalism can trace, at least a prtion of its root system to Milton Friedman, who in a 1970 New York Times article first articulated the primacy of shareholder value theory.

The title of the article, “The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” sums-up Friedman’s thinking. There are certainly a number of ways to interpret what Friedman wrote, but it’s important to recognize Friedman was a brilliant person and certainly came-up with a reasonable polemic – not unlike our friend John Locke. The trouble is Friedman used his gifts and his influence to unleash something that had long-ago been tried and failed. If you want a sense of what I mean by this, watch the 1951 version of Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol”, starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge. The dialogue conveys precisely what Dickens – and many others, too often vilified as “socialists” – saw in the mid-1800’s: the dysfunction of unfettered capitalism and the greed it begets.

Sustainable business transcends this sort of narrow, linear thinking and recognizes the complexity and interconnectedness of all life. John Elkington’s triple bottom line model speaks to this.

If we orient three non-parallel lines as starting at a single point, and label each as “people, planet, profit” we define three-dimensional space. Space is what all material things occupy, and is a far better representation of the world around us. Only ideas occupy linear thinking. ‘Nough said – at least for now.

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