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SUSTAINABILITY

SUSTAINABLE - WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?

'SUSTAINABLE' - WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?

You might have heard the term ‘sustainable’ a lot, often connected with recycling or maybe climate change.
 
But there’s a lot more to sustainability you might think.
 
In this microcourse you’ll learn about some more aspects of sustainability and why thinking about sustainability is important for society, people, and for companies and those who work for them and do business with them.
 
Our learning objectives
 
When you have completed this microcourse you will:
 

Understand a variety of definitions of sustainability

Understand why sustainability is important to businesses

Understand sustainability in the context of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Have considered some examples of businesses and how they are sustainable. 

INTRODUCTION

Watch this brief video on Defining Sustainability from the Sustainability Teacher's Academy

What do you think 'sustainable' means?
 
If you look in the dictionary it will say something like
 
 
"the quality of being able to continue for a long period of time"
 
 
One way to think about this is that to be able to keep something going for a long period time you have to use resources effectively.
 
For example, to be able to run a school, you have to have things like buildings, technology (like your computer network) and people (all of the teachers and support staff) that allow you to carry on teaching students every day, every week and every term. The only way to make sure you can do that is to make sure you build and maintain buildings properly, look after your network by upgrading it or replacing things that stop working, and to employ great teachers.
 
You will probably have heard the term sustainability connected with things like making products that can be used again, or that can be processed to be used again.
 
Taking old clothes or toys to a charity shop is one simple example of reusing products. Putting your recycling into the bin so plastic bottles can be processed and turned into new plastic bottles is another.
 
In both cases, you make the clothes, or the plastic, last much longer than if you just threw them away.
 

A BIGGER DEFINITION

You may never have thought about how travelling can be sustainable. Watch this video from the company Lonely Planet on ways to travel sustainably.
But we'd like you to think about some bigger definitions of sustainability in terms of what entire businesses (or even countries) can do to be sustainable.
 
One thing that has happened in the pandemic is that people are not able to fly as much as they did.
 
Your parents probably did business travel: they flew to meetings either in the same country or overseas. Now this is not possible, they have video conferencing meetings instead.
 
Most businesses were already thinking about how to have people travel less because air travel uses energy and creates pollution and as a result the earth is getting hotter.
 
And if the planet gets hotter it will make life very difficult for lots of people. So to keep our planet - and us - going for a long period of time we need to think about ways to sustain it.
 
So one thing that a business can is to think about all the different ways they can be sustainable.
 
Whether it's building energy efficient buildings, making sure travel is really necessary or hiring people who will make the business successful and who also think about sustainability, it's all important.

'DOING WELL' AND 'DOING GOOD'

When we think about sustainability we also have to think about how a business can survive and make money. After all, there's no point in, for example, limiting travel so much that it's impossible to meet people when you really need to.
 
The most successful businesses balance doing well (making money, employing people, making great products) with doing good (making sure they do things that contribute to the bigger picture of sustainability).
 
It's quite tricky though, because sometimes doing well tends to come before doing good, and without a plan for how to manage the balance between these two things it can often get forgotten about.
 
But of course it's not just people and companies that have to think about sustainability. You can think about it in terms of entire countries.
UN Sustainable Development goals logo
A really important way to think about this problem was proposed by something called the Bruntland Commission (named after the premier of Norway) which was created by the United Nations who also created the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
 
The Bruntland Commission said that so that countries can grow and develop sustainably, they need to think about how they:
 
meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
 
What that means is that instead of just thinking about this year or next year, it's important to consider the future - maybe 20, 50 or a hundred years from now.
 
The things we do now will change the way people live in the future.

Watch former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland talk about her life and why she became involved in the commission that led to the creation of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 
Learn about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in this video from the United Nations.

SUSTAINABILITY FRAMEWORKS

But how does a business, or a country, go about this?
 
One way is to think about it in terms of a framework for how you decide what to do. A framework doesn't tell you what to do, it guides you how to make decisions.
 
One sustainability framework that can help is called the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) framework.
 
Let's see how it works.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL, GOVERNANCE FRAMEWORK

ENVIRONMENTAL

The E in ESG stands for Environmental.
 
It says that when you think about being sustainable, think about the environment: the energy a company takes in  the waste it produces, the resources it needs, and the consequences for humans and the planet.
 
As we saw earlier, flying - and all travel - creates what are called carbon emissions. Airplane fuel is based on oil, and when it is burned it creates waste in the form of Carbon Dioxide (or CO2) which makes the planet hotter. But even making the fuel uses energy - as does transporting it and storing it.
 
Every company, country, every company and every person is affected by the environment.

SOCIAL

The S in ESG stands for Social and includes everything about how a company related to the people it comes in contact with.
 
That might be employees, customers or the families and friends of customers and employees.
 
How a company deals with all of those people is important, because a company that treats people fairly, well and carefully is doing good and doing well.

GOVERNANCE

The G in ESG stands for Governance.
 
Governance is a set of rules about how things happen. We have lots of governance rules, for example those about how our police force behaves or about how people are elected and what they can and can't do when they get elected.
 
Companies are the same, and having governance over how companies make decisions - who can make then and what they can decide - ensures that they make good decisions about how to be sustainable.

THE TRIPLE BOTTOM LINE

Another sustainability framework is called the triple bottom line.
 
When companies make money, all of it is added up, the cost of running the company (wages, transport and everything else) are deducted and the result is profit - often called the bottom line.
 
But there more things a company do than just make a profit, and they are also p's - people and the planet. Just like ESG, companies can choose to try and makes the lives of people better, and make the planet better.

PROFIT

How much money a company makes. 

PEOPLE

How a company treats and deals with its people, including their employees. 

PLANET

How a company thinks about its impact on the planet.
Frameworks are useful because they make it easier to measure those things that are not just about making money. After all, its easy to find out how much money a business makes, but unless you start to measure the other things it can do it can sometimes be hard to figure out exactly what the company has achieved.
 
But it's not easy, and one reason is that companies come in all shapes and sizes and what they do can be very different.
 
For example, how can you compare the P (people) part of the triple bottom line for a small business, say a cafe that employs 5 people, and a huge business say a bank, that employs 50,000?
 
Now think about it in terms of countries.
 
How can you compare the sustainability of a country like the UK (with 66M people) to Australia (24M people) while taking account of the fact that Australia is 32 times bigger than the UK?

TOMS - THEMES, OUTCOMES AND MEASURES

Thats one reason why people have developed the final framework we will talk about called TOMS.
 
This stands for Themes, Outcomes and Measures and it is really useful for figuring out how well a company is doing in terms of the People and Planet parts of the triple bottom line.

THEMES

For example, suppose a large company wants to build a building.
 
They could develop a TOMS framework that says what themes they want to make sure they focus on (for example 'help people find work', or 'protecting the environment')...

OUTCOMES

...they then develop some outcomes ('we want to create jobs" and 'we want to improve the local area')...

MEASURES

...they then measure them to see what happened. In the end you should be able to say what happened - say 150 people employed, or 140 tons of carbon emissions saved.
Add all of these up and you can get what is called the Social Value: what the building did to help sustainability for people and the planet.
 
These are just some of the sustainability frameworks. What you should see is that frameworks can be very helpful in helping focus on what we can do to be more sustainable.

MORE ABOUT THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

Now we've understood a lot more about what sustainabilty means, we should ask how can we make it happen?
 
The frameworks help us think about it but it's often useful to have some goals we want to achieve so we know what we are aiming for.
 
This is why the United Nations - countries working together - created the 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs we saw earlier.
 
They outline all the areas that countries should be working together on to make the world more sustainable.
 
You'll would have seen that they are not just about the environment, but about things like education, poverty, hunger, peace, health and equality
 
What the SDGs do is to help everyone focus on what can be achieved for everyone on the planet if everyone works together towards the same goals.
 
Let's look in detail at one of them. 
 

GOAL 4 - EDUCATION

SDG 4
This goal, like all of the others, has lots of specific things we could measure, like the number children who go to school, how well they are able to read, how many children graduate from school, how many buys vs girls are in education, or whether schools around the work have access to things like clean drinking water, electricity, access to the internet or how many teachers there are.
 
Education is an important sustainability goal, because without it many people won't be able to work, to earn money, to bring up children and to make good decisions.
 
What the UN does through its sustainability goals is to help countries measure their progress towards the important things that will make the world more sustainable - to carry on for a long period of time.
 
worlds largest lesson
You can read more about goal 4 in some materials called The World's Largest Lesson that the UN has produced.  

EXPLORE: WHO IS SUSTAINABLE?

Here are some mini case studies of businesses who have committed to sustainability.
 
Why not investigate each of these and see how far you think they have committed to sustainability and how they are doing it. 
E

E.ON

E.ON, who are an energy company say:

"We consider the impact of everything we do. We work continually to minimize our impact on the climate and environment."

Learn more about E.ON and sustainability. 

ernst-and-young logo

EY

EY are a consultancy company who advise their clients on how to be more sustainable. They say:

"Ignoring sustainability, environmental, health and safety (EHS) and climate change risks is no longer an option."

Learn more about how EY thinks about sustainability.

M&S logo

M&S

M&S is a British company who sell food, clothing and homeware, and who say:

"Food waste has a huge impact on the planet. That's why we're finding new ways to cut our waste and make sure all our surplus food ends up on a plate."

Learn more about M&S considers sustainability in its approach to food waste. 

Sustainable business plansLearn about sustainability with HaileyburyX and Sustainable X. Person working on business plan.

Cisco

CISCO are a technology company that was founded in 1984. One of their sustainability programmes is Takeback and Reuse that lets customers return old equipment. They say: 

"Cisco enables customers to return, at no cost, 100 percent of their end-of-life equipment."

Learn about Cisco's Product Takeback and Reuse programme.

EXPLORE: WHO DO YOU THINK IS A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS?

Pick an example of a business you know - it can be a local business, or you can ask your parents about who they work for or ask your teachers about your school -  and try understand how they think about sustainability.
 
You could ask questions like:
 
How does this business think about the three Ps - profit, people and the planet?
 
Which of the 17 Goals are they working towards?
 
What should they think about in terms of ethics, or their supply chain?
 
 

EXPLORE: WHAT'S YOUR DEFINITION OF SUSTAINABILITY?

We've listed some of our definitions of what could be included in sustainability below.
 
Some of them you have seen and some of them are extra ones.
 
Select them below to see examples of each, and then see if you can think of any others. 

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?

Sustainability what does it mean? Learn about sustainability with HaileyburyX and Sustainable X. Image of head.
In completing this microcourse Sustainable - what does it really mean? you should have understood that there is much more to sustainability that you might have thought.
 
Specifically, you should have understood more about the ways businesses can think about sustainability, how companies can do well as well as doing good, about some of the different sustainability frameworks, about the 17 Sustainability Development Goals and have seen some examples of how different companies approach sustainability. 
BACK TO SUSTAINABILITY HOMEPAGE
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NEXT COURSE COMING SOON

WHY BE SUSTAINABLE?

Now you have understood sustainability, this microcourse asks the question ’why be sustainable?

In this microcourse you'll explore what happens when a business decides to focus on sustainability, how they make the ‘business case’ for sustainability, and how it links to a company’s purpose, the behaviours of everyone in the company and how it affects the ‘stakeholders’ (all of the people who are involved in how the business works).