Businesses, governments and individuals are increasingly asking what sustainability means and how it can be quantified as we try to balance the costs and environmental impacts of our activities while working to enrich our communities.
In my work I apply the following definition of sustainability: “The application of measurable and quantifiable practices that include the economic, social and environmental metrics that actively reduce energy and resources use, and improve habitats and communities while working towards a zero carbon footprint.”
This working definition utilizes the Triple Bottom Line and quantifiable metrics. You don’t have to use a carbon footprint as your metric, but sustainable practices work towards a zero impact reference point. There are many approaches (see Metrics Box).
The application of sustainability to businesses, communities, government, and personal endeavors can draw upon a groundswell of relatively new sustainability awareness and experience. The most practical experience draws upon transformative concepts of the Triple Bottom Line.
In his 2006 book The Triple Bottom Line Andrew Savitz presents many of the challenges addressed and solutions reached by major corporations in their quest for sustainability in business. The Triple Bottom Line philosophy embraces sustainability as the necessary integration in business of environment, community and economy, also known as the three pillars of sustainability.
The practical application of the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) results in significant improvements in our environment, enrichment of our communities, and beneficial economic outcomes. It in essence expands the traditional corporate accounting measures to include environmental and community performance. The premise for business is that a company is responsible to all the stakeholders impacted by their business, not just shareholders.
Use of the TBL can minimize or eliminate negative impacts resulting from business activities while pursuing environmental, community and economic value.
Under the pillar of environment we can include the application of all sciences, engineering and resources technologies towards environmentally enhancing solutions. Under the pillar of community we can include all aspects of the social, cultural, historical, ethnic, health and safety, human rights, diversity, outreach, politics and educational elements of sustainability. And under the pillar of economy we include all economic, financial, business, capital efficiency, risk management, security, and employment related aspects of our community and environment. A business can only consider itself moving towards sustainability if it actively engages all three pillars.
What is a Sustainable Practice? Is planting a tree a sustainable practice? Well that depends on the metric being used to measure the sustainability of the project. If a zero carbon footprint can be demonstrated by an action in the entire project, then the business has addressed the environmental TBL pillar. This may also address the economic pillar in some cases. And, if it can be demonstrated that the action enriches the community by not negatively impacting the other two pillars (economic and environmental), then, yes, a sustainable practice has been applied, and progress towards sustainability achieved.
An example of integrating TBL practices is in land use planning. Sustainable oriented decisions seek brownfield rather than greenfield lands for development. Conservation developments and LEED certifications are key guidelines. Sustainable land use planning is the integration of environmental (native species use, water management, ecosystem diversity, etc.), and community (walkable, town-centered development, historical preservation, community appropriate architecture, rural agricultural gardens, public transportation), and economic efforts (green jobs, educational benefits, positive impacts to businesses and tax base, conservation of resources).
TBL ideas can be used in water management as well. This includes use of nature-mimicking systems such as wetlands, green roofs, rain gardens, groundwater recharge, and in-building gray water use.
Energy generation and procurement should seek renewable energy solutions as well to move towards TBL sustainability. Passive and active solar systems, wind generated electricity, waste-to-energy programs, and geoexchange systems all work toward this goal.
The application of the TBL approach is more than a dreamer’s idea. It yields quantitative economic benefits such as reduction of materials consumption, reduced power needs, and reduced maintenance and management costs.
The move towards sustainability is being assisted by governmental subsidies, tax credits, grants and other incentives. The larger community benefits from greater job satisfaction and positive public relations, green jobs and businesses, and positive inputs to education and training. And of course the environment benefits through greater habitat diversity and ecosystem connectivity, greater assurance of clean and abundant water supplies, cleaner air, and increases in low-impact recreation.