Sustainability Defies Exact Definition And Achievability Business Essay


Viewed from economic aspects alone, sustainability can be defined in relation to an economy which is sustainable because of its dynamic efficiency and maximization of total welfare functions over a time frame (Stavins, et al, 2002). However, sustainability commonly concerns issues relating to society, environment or economy which three dimensions are perceived as to be mutually interdependent and not independent of one another (Omann, 2004, p. 68). Environmental sustainability accepts the premise that natural resources are expendable and can not be sustained forever (Dyllick and Hockerts, 1999). Environmental sustainability efforts include waste management and processes for recycling waste by production firms. Indeed, life support globally implies the need for regulating food, water, air, waste breakdown, soil fertility, and climate behavior. Economists like Pezzey (1989) and Solow (1993) aver that sustainability relates to the maintaining of a utility or welfare of a typical member of society. Economical sustainability is based on attempts to sustain financial viability or achieve optimum financial goals and is driven by the business attitude of businesses which implies the maximizing of shareholder or stakeholder value by firms (Doig, 1999). Firms can however attain both financial goals as well as larger social objectives (Duncan, 2002) while social sustainability implies a definition and need to achieve "social capital" (Putnam, 2000). Indeed, Putnam views social capital as being constituted of the various norms, principles, values, relationships, networks, etc. Gladwin, et al (1995, p. 2) even observe that organizations can become socially sustainable by internalizing "social costs", foster democracy and also add to community value, while Dyllick and Hockerts (1999, p. 134) consider social sustainability as effective if it can help the various stakeholders to better understand social capital issues as well as align their aspirations with larger interests of society. Other research (Viederman, 1994) views sustainability as being a participatory process that both creates and follows a concept of community which can make effective use of all types of resources like human, natural, synthetic, human-scientific, technological, social, cultural, and so on. Achievable sustainability can thus be taken to mean the attainment of a social system for satisfying needs of the community at large, better protecting the environment, effecting and sustaining high levels of economic growth and assuring human development (Church, 2003). Sustainability involves the economy as well as the fundamental ecological and environmental systems and the broader social fabric containing the economy itself (Norton and Toman, 1997). Broadly speaking, sustainable development or sustainability is not only an ecologic-scientific concept that attempts to view it as delimiting the exploitation of nature or the environment, but more fundamentally is the formulation of the ethical ideal of equity as well as a balanced approach as between benefits and damages (Arnold, et al, 2001). Indeed, this ethic-normative view of sustainability represents "the byword of the good and the right" (Thielemann, 2004). Sustainability implies an ability to face uncertain events like hazards, sudden changes, innovations, etc. (Bruckmeier, p. 1389) while other research (Holling, 2001, p. 390) views sustainability as a continued game of trying and maintaining an adaptive ability. Sustainability thus defies an exact definition and essentially attempts to resolve problems like poverty, population explosion, wellbeing of humans, economic growth, industrialization and its unintended consequences, the destruction of the environment, climate change, depleting resources, a dis-embedded globalizing economy, etc. (Bruckmeier, 2009). Sustainability seems impossible to achieve, because it has a vague conceptual nature, such concepts are often disputed, involves complex problems that need to be resolved or addressed by changing social or economic structures and individual behavior (Bruckmeier, 2009). Sustainability also seems impossible to achieve in entirety, both due to its complex nature as well as the divergent approaches to defining and assessing it. Hence, while some sustainability objectives can be easily achieved, others need further control over extraneous factors of society and environment. Sustainability is in this sense an abstract concept; humanity appears still to come terms with even some of the problems that endanger future generations. While sustainability is multifaceted and no single definition or assessment can serve all purposes, it encompasses two definite dimensions, viz. human and ecological. But, the very concept of sustainability is vague and a still-evolving theoretical construct.

3. Why sustainability is necessary

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Several authors have written upon sustainability and why it is needed. Their works differ in the way they view the problems facing the world and its life forms. However, broadly speaking, sustainability encompasses social, environmental and economic dimensions. Sustainability is necessary to resolve the problems caused by unplanned civilization growth and the diverse and unbalanced political, economic and social policies pursued by governments across the world. It is also a theoretical approach to address the problems caused by human interactions with nature over centuries of expansion of the human civilization. Spangenberg (2007, pp. 2-5) aptly summarizes the key problems facing human life and global ecology in one of his many background papers for sustainability conferences as being constituted of four key issues. One is the overuse of the environment and the consequent threat to the stability of systems supporting life itself. Another is the undervaluing of labor in different parts of the world as also the skewed distribution of incomes causing widening economic gap between haves and have-nots. A third is the way business enterprises follow a path of cost-cutting in tackling future problems though old strategies; new innovative strategies are ignored and old ones like mergers, restructuring, etc. are persisted with. The fourth and last is the crisis of legitimization caused by untrustworthy decision makers who can not ensure common good of society. Spangenberg also highlights several ways in which life on earth is threatened. Thus, according to him, there is massive degradation of marine resources that in turn impact fisheries, the threat to agricultural productivity due to deforestation and loss in fertility of the soil, the threat to human water supplies and utility of land for agriculture use due to depleting ground water levels and increasing ground water pollution, the loss of biodiversity due to massive felling of entire forests, the continuing loss in forest value, forest dieback and lake acidification, the danger to human health and decreased agricultural and marine produce owing to the phenomenally high rate of depletion of stratospheric ozone, the high economic costs caused by increasing temperature, increasingly unpredictable natural calamities, weather fluctuations and rainfall pattern changes which are again all caused by accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (2007, p. 2).

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One of the most comprehensive efforts at achieving sustainability is outlined by the INES (INES, 1996) which advocates the development of sustainability through protecting the integrity of the biosphere by practicing sustainable agriculture and forestry, preserving marine life and biodiversity, and by protecting nature via networks. It also advocates the efficient use of resources through social innovation, better resource allocation and efficient new technologies. The INES also emphasizes self-reliance, participatory democracy, fair trade, and peace and non-violence as being other essential features of sustainability. Obviously and as is commonly acknowledged, attempts to achieve sustainability seek to limit resource use so as to conserve renewable as well as non-renewable resources, reduce pollution of water, soil and air, control wastes through efficient recycling, control population, protect biodiversity in nature, establish democratic and social justice principles, implement basic human necessities and establish proper decision making systems, among others. However, sustainability is still only an effort at achieving ecological, economical and social objectives. It attempts to address issues like environmental pollution, economic sustainability of individuals, organizations and nations, as also seeks to attain social equity. In as much as sustainability concerns itself with improving and sustaining human life and its quality, it impacts a host of sectors like roads and transportation, environment, business processes, biodiversity, technology, industrial waste management, organizational strategy, and so on. Sustainability issues also relates to local, regional, national or global needs and aspirations. Local needs may or may not reflect global or national concerns; they may also indicate broader macro objectives of both governments and the global human community. Regional concerns may also often be perceived as being key decision making issues for successful sustainability achievement. However, global concerns encompassing environment, economy and society form a common ground on which all sustainability efforts, whether local, regional or national, are essentially based upon. Thus extant literature touches upon various sustainable concerns like land use sustainability, water use sustainability, natural resources sustainability, sustainability of special communities, sustainability or flora and fauna, sustainability of petroleum resources, and so on, although they reflect more of an ideal concept of sustainability achievement rather than a practically attainable concept.

4. Sustainability in organizations

Earlier research (Friedman, 1970) point to a fundamental trade-off between a firm's economic performance and its social engagement while it is commonly acknowledged that voluntarily engaging in social outcome may not hold sufficient or necessary incentives for a business firm to prefer such social engagement over its avowed policy of economic gratification. However, current ethical and social responsibility initiatives of modern firms belie this perception, although the adoption of social objectives may afford long term economic benefits to a firm. A business enterprise generally moves through six stages when it transforms itself towards sustainability (Dunphy, 2003). The first stage is that of rejection of negative impacts or the flouting of laws. The second stage is one of non-responsiveness of the firm to sustainability needs. Instead, during this phase, the firm follows a path of short-term profitability. However, in such a state, firm stand to lose their bearings in the altering market landscape and change management may often be too late in reversing declines. The next stage is that of compliance, when the firm builds upon its social and market reputation or brand as well as counters risks by following regulations and by respecting relevant laws. In the fourth stage, firms follow a path of operating and cost efficiency in the backdrop of its larger social objectives. In the penultimate or fifth stage of transformation, the firm follows a central policy of sustainability adoption and stresses on innovative processes, practices of systems. In the last or sixth stage, the firm tries to sustain itself. Such a sustainability objective transcends limiting and narrower economic considerations. Again, a firm also adopts suitable strategies for achieving such sustainability. Various scholars outline different strategies for achieving sustainability by a business enterprise. Thus, three traditional strategies for achieving sustainability are ecologically based and include an efficiency strategy, a sufficiency strategy and a consistency strategy (Huber, 1995). The efficiency strategy attempts to reduce material and energy consumption during production phase. A consistency strategy tries to maintain quality of output or products in a process. Such a strategy achieves quality and replaces existing noxious materials with naturally formed substances. Under the sufficiency strategy, the use of products by end-users or customers is optimized. Still other researchers mention four distinct types of sustainability strategies: a defensive strategy that minimizes risks, and is oriented towards society; an offensive transformative strategy that is also society oriented and tries to create new markets for society; the efficiency strategy is also defensive and oriented to the market since it focuses on improving productivity; the last type of strategy or innovative strategy is also an offensive one and attempts to achieve value additions for the customers in a sustainable market (Bieker and Dyllick, 2006). In addition to the three traditional strategies as outlined by Huber (1995), other research (Schaltegger & Burritt, 2005) identifies four more competitive strategies with broader societal leanings. One is the sustainability market buffering strategy that attempts to define defensive business goals. This strategy views environmental and social concerns as threats to business and mainly tries to reduce existing legal regulations as well as prevent further ones from being formulated. The sustainability cost strategy is also environmentally and socially oriented, more of a compliance strategy and only attempts to fulfill the firm's related obligations. The sustainability differentiation strategy recognizes that a firm needs to adopt suitable product or price differentiation in order for it to stay competitive and sustainable. The firm builds strategies via innovation, which afford it economical gains t and also builds up its brand value. The sustainability market development strategy tries and builds markets for the sustainable products of the firm. A firm following such a strategy tries to promote products sustainability, advocates stronger regulatory environment and also tries to change its approach towards business the customers (Schaltegger and Burritt, 2005).

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There is also a concept of corporate sustainability used frequently by organizational strategists. Thus some research points to such a corporate sustainability as being related to the sustainability as contributed by a corporation (Dentchev, 2004). Experts view two types of such corporate sustainability. One is the weak corporate sustainability which emphasizes that sustainable efforts should help creating total wealth that should not reduce with time (Atkinson, 2000). The total wealth is used to refer to the totality of social, economic and environmental value as created by corporations. Other experts view weak corporate sustainability as facilitating loss in environmental value to be compensated by social or economic values (Reinhardt, 2000), when the total value is stagnant or increasing; indeed, according to this view, weak corporate sustainability depicts a sustainable firm as being one that creates value when measuring costs and revenues at social opportunity costs (p. 30). Social costs can include private costs (e.g., capital and labor costs) and costs not directly reflected by market prices (p.27) Again, strong corporate sustainability means physical protection of absolute levels of natural assets implying that natural assets cater to complex ecological functions which are significant for maintaining and also such functions can not replace other assets (Atkinson, 2000). The weak sustainability concept depicts an economical concept of the sustainability discourse (Aguirre, 2002), whereas strong sustainability relates to environmental concerns. Again, others (e.g., Gladwin et al, 1995) view strong corporate sustainability as being eco-centric.

5. Problems in achieving sustainability

Several authors observe that sustainability considerations without including population control measures appear to render sustainability as a theoretical construct. Such authors view population control as a necessary precondition for ay sustainability strategy to succeed and also that, sustainability is just a fragile and simplistic theoretical construct when it emphasizes measures for managing land-use patterns and ideology while at the same time neglecting population increases (Wilson, 1995, p. 65). Again, Appleton observes succinctly that sustainability can be pursued in various ways, can even be achieved partially or to slight degrees, but can never be achieved definitely (2006, p.3-18). The reasons why sustainability is more theory than a practical proposition needs further explanation which this paper attempts to do.

One theory has it that material resources are fast depleting on the earth and that sustainability or sustainable development can be achieved if maximum recycling of materials be possible or if materials being processed be limited in quantity over a specified time period. Thus, while economic growth is facilitated by increased use and consumption of resources, sustainability appears to succeed if the resources use is minimized. Bartlett observes that increased economic growth implies increased consumption of scarce non-renewable resources which goes against the basic sustainability principle (Bartlett, 2005, p. 27). Again he avers that population growth can not be sustained in a society and sustainability becomes more difficult of achievement, the larger the population (p. 35). Likewise, Spangenberg (2007, p. 15) too highlights how sustainability requires stakeholder integration, sharing of responsibilities and a need for a consensual approach to resolving problems, which in practice is quite difficult to achieve. Consensus also seems difficult to achieve due to differences in approach to adopting suitable measures for tackling the problems. Consensus also often fails with regard to facilitating better distribution of available resources since much of the same are the result of nature's distribution and basically inequitable so as to hinder a unified approach to sustainability. Indeed, the achievement of sustainability requires the establishment of increased distributional justice as well as social care (Zeigler, 2003). Again, Spangenberg aptly observes that critical factors that can aid sustainability efforts to succeed include the adoption of innovative new processes, as also the political willingness to confront or withstand vested interests that threaten to disrupt unified and required sustainability goals (2007, p. 11).

Several studies indicate multiple factors in modern organizations that serve to hinder the achievement of global sustainability. Since sustainability efforts involve rely on better and lesser use of energy and physical resources, use of recycling of resources and innovative new processes, measures for tackling pollution of water, soil and air by production firms, reducing income disparities and protecting and overall sustaining all the life forms on the planet, the role of business enterprises in the global sustainability effort assumes critical significance. However, there are several problems and drawbacks that plague business enterprises and which prevent the achievement of successful sustainability outcomes. Such drawbacks in firms encompass marketing, financial, etc. dimensions. Market awareness of sustainability and environmental issues are unequal amongst B2B, B2C and B2G sectors. Markets are also still price-denominated and there are few market incentives as yet to promote sustainable development. Environment policies need to be flexible and oriented towards the future. Embedded systems and traditional processes also render sustainability efforts difficult to attain. For effective change to occur so as to facilitate sustainable development, huge capital is also necessary. This too acts as a high barrier to suitable adoption of newer products or processes that can successfully align business practices with a global sustainability policy. There is also a lack of vision and commitment in senior management in organizations which also prevent a quicker adoption of sustainable practices within the organization. In a situation where change in organizational systems or practices require both high commitment and huge capital, lack of commitment and a sustained effort by stakeholders can not serve to achieve sustainability. Additionally, the management of enterprises often adopt short-term business oriented views rather realize and implement policies or processes for achieving larger goals of society. Again, a viable and uniform definition of sustainability is difficult to attain and underscores such basic differences which effectively prevents the adoption of a successful and consensual approach to resolving complex sustainability issues. Sustainability is rendered all the more unachievable in as much as businesses are driven by self-interest and are obsessed by profit motive, governments tackle the problem in a disjointed manner, and individual decisions can impact the whole larger issue negatively. Also, governments all over the world technical, scientific, economic and social expertise to act upon key sustainability issues (Blackmore, 2001). Again, government regulators and law-enforcers often are corrupted and unwilling to implement key sustainability oriented policies. Hence, laws formulated to tackle sustainability issues and effected through the various treaties, constitutional provisions, and statutory rules and regulations are often not adhered to at local, regional or national levels; such laws are also not supported by adequate powers for effecting sanctions, monitoring or enforcement (Sunstein, 1997). Indeed, many authors argue for better accountability instead of pursuing sustainability, which appears to be an impossible dream (Barnhizer, 2006, p. 19). Elsewhere Barnhizer also avers that sustainability relating to the environmental, human rights and ecological aspect is unconnected with the actual human systems that are responsible for ensuring better economic growth and stable political order (2006, p. 17). Other research (Waldrop, 1992) also highlights another important aspect of human efforts to tackle sustainability issues; he says that narrow and short term objectives of those in political power across the world are mean that the political masters are unable to know in advance of the future catastrophes till the moment they occur by which time it is quite difficult and almost impossible to avoid the negative outcomes or significantly mitigated by any concerted political efforts.

Several researchers (e.g., Yates, 1999) mention that most theoretical attempts to resolve sustainability problem issues are far removed from the reality of human systems as they exist. He avers that most such efforts at attaining sustainability emphasize changes to institutional systems and behavioral approaches of business which are very difficult to achieve, if at all they can be achieved in practicality. Also, even when such institutional or behavioral changes can be effected, there is a possibility of real crisis or collapse of systems to occur and which can effect to make political or other decision makers act in alignment with sustainability principles. Indeed, most attempts to tackle crisis also, when these do happen, are feeble and partial, necessitating critical support from governments as well as a mandated approach to regulating issues for successful sustainability achievement to occur. It is thus commonly a "too little too late" syndrome that negates all sustainability efforts to effectively tackle to any degree the negative consequences of such human-induced and highly degrading phenomenon of natural chaos or crisis (Yates, 1999). Barnhizer (2006, p. 18-22) too observes that problems in achieving sustainability have their roots in both natural as well as social systems. According to him, there is need to manage conflicting needs for providing social benefits, education, health care, pensions to the aged, and for alleviating poverty. Such a need entails availing massive funds in order to rectify wrongs that may have already been done to social, economic or environmental systems. Additional globalization and related problems like population growth, increasing transnational populations due to cross-border migration, the adoption of multicultural diversity, and a materialistic focus to life has changed human view of life and its quality. Urban locations are also increasingly becoming crowded as rural populations migrate to these places in search of better income levels, and coastal development needs massive investment, support infrastructure and supply sources. Also, increasing population, unbalanced distribution in population geographically and age demographics severely impact uniformity of adoption of similar sustainability measures all across the globe. Current economic systems are also more open, with information exchanges having facilitated the have-nots to better understand and aspire for what the haves possess in huge measure for rendering life of quality and comfort. Barnhizer therefore views such conditions as irreversible and such as to render a practical achievement of sustainability quite impossible and worth relegating to the "refuse heap of history" (2006, p. 21). He does acknowledge that some sustainability efforts can be successful in a limited way but can satisfy only a small finite population. However, he continues that local sustainability efforts cannot produce or be a part of a larger global or national effort at achieving sustainability. Again, he refers to organizational efforts at achieving sustainability over and above it profit goals as an impossible approach since business enterprises are only in existence to record more profits for its owners and shareholders. Relying on these profit-driven business enterprises for achieving nobler social goals as envisaged by sustainability advocates is both of lesser value and a predicator of non-achievement of larger sustainability outcomes (p. 41). More tellingly, he pinpoints the causes of the sorry state of sustainability achievement as the business systems and decisions made rather than on the decision makers themselves (p. 42). Elsewhere, he also avers that business enterprises run on investments and those who invest huge amounts of money want to get significant returns on their investments rather than on having their funds utilized for any social or long-term goals and this fact renders sustainable decision making quite irrelevant (p. 43).

6. A more optimistic view of sustainability

The achievement of sustainability has been viewed with pessimism by many experts. The views of such experts go to support the view that sustainability is a mirage rather than actually achievable. The Brundtland Commission did not help matters any, although it still remains a defining agent for promoting global sustainability management, when it treated the population issue partially or not at all. Indeed, any attempt to tackle un-sustainability appears seriously lacking in effort as per the accounts of several eminent researchers and authors (e.g., Bartlett, 2005). Nonetheless, sustainability is actively promoted by governments and nations as well as rights groups and business organizations of repute. Thus, one hears of various sustainability initiatives like green technology, green supply chain, green architecture, green taxes, etc. Indeed, sustainability as an organizational vision and as followed by senior management in reputed organizations and business concerns is getting to be quite common of occurrence. The achievement of actual sustainability hinges on the narrow or broad approach to sustainability that is envisioned by the management decision makers and the interactions of various organizational resources and the various stakeholders - both internal and external, and some evident and some not at all evident- that constitute the complex organizational systems in modern firms. Often enough, management treats sustainability as a vision and ca not put it into concrete shape or direction. The traditional economic goals also hinder an active adoption of the sustainable goals envisioned by the management. However, many organizations have been somewhat successful in achieving objectives relating to sustainability within them. A global sustainability concept considers such operational or practical issues like focusing on social, economic and ecological growth, emphasis on social inter or intra generational equity, better integration of government policies, contributing enhanced value to the environment, achieving responsibility of the global community, adopting a precautionary public policy, as also entail higher community participation in sustainable development. Advocates of sustainability preach a so-called triple bottom line that combines financial, social and environmental approaches. Successful sustainability achievement necessitates an approach laying equal emphasis on economic, social and environmental goals. However, in practice, this is often not achieved or achievable. Business organizations, for instance, are there to do business, and hence any notion of social sustainability is alien to firms following sound business principles of deriving optimum economic returns on capital employed. However, studies also indicate that, in the long term, one has to follow the triple bottom line approach for sustaining the very environment, economy and social structure in which business enterprisers operate. Achieving sustainability, therefore, is more a critical need rather than an option to pursue or not to pursue.

7. Conclusion

While sustainability or sustainable development is an idealized concept rather than has been practically achieved, it is also true that individuals, firms, societies, nations, governments, human rights advocates and the global community at large cannot remain immune to changes and evolving patterns in their social, financial, ecological and real-life environment. Emerging technologies as well as new streams of knowledge and innovation management are increasingly perceived as having the ability to solve many problem issues facing the human race, and not only in a limited environment that a business entity consists of. Indeed, business enterprises are only a small but significant part of a larger global community that can positively or negatively impact its environment; the intrinsic cause and consequence characteristic effect of nature can not be negated in the present or in the future by any means and perhaps, ultimately, the fight to assure as well as sustain human life and its quality for a finite or infinite period of time is dependant on the ways the various participants in the global community interact among themselves. Various regulatory or mandatory controls only serve to emphasize the fragile and fickle nature of humans; ideology is but the basic driver of all sustainability efforts that can well make practical efforts in the field a success. The real test for humans lies in the far or not so far future when, perhaps, everyone finds that it is already too late to reverse the final demise of humanity. At such time, the question of whether sustainability is a social construct and an impossible dream or if at all it can be practically achieved, would in all probability cease to have any meaning whatsoever.