Sustainable companies reflect the same balance of economic, social, and environmental responsibility. They exist as business entities, but are a part of a system that relies on a healthy dynamic of man-made and natural elements. At their most basic level, businesses take inputs, process them (adding value), and generate outputs. That gives us the ideal of a truly sustainable company to strive for:
A truly sustainable company is one that:
- Uses the waste of other processes as its input, and minimizes or eliminates the use of virgin materials extracted from the earth;
- Creates output that can be used by other processes or returned to a natural state, and eliminates waste that can’t be used or returned to a natural state;
- Uses the least amount of energy to achieve the desired outcome, and uses energy ultimately derived from renewable sources.
The value companies generate has traditionally been measured in purely financial metrics. However, it is becoming more common to reflect the value generated as a “triple bottom line.” Whether represented formally as a Corporate Social Responsibility report or more informally, companies interested in being sustainable now focus on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.
Sustainability manifests itself in companies at a variety of levels, including:
- Strategy – Some companies decide what to make or do based on sustainable business ideals. Stonyfield Farms has made social and environmental responsibility a key part of its business strategy since it began.
- Supply chain & value webs – Walmart requires its suppliers to evaluate and disclose the full environmental impact of their products. There continues to be increased attention to so-called industrial ecology, which analyzes the material and energy flows within whole industrial systems, often extending far beyond the domain of a single business.
- Operations – Decisions about how to make and move products increasingly reflect environmental impacts. In the case of the floor covering company Interface, what has become one of the real sustainable business success stories started with rethinking the social and environmental impacts of their operations. In many cases, companies have instituted Environmental Management Systems (EMS) have operationalized the tracking, documentation, and reporting of environmental impacts by the business. There is even a specific ISO standard (ISO 14001:2004) governing EMS.
- Product development & design – Companies have incorporated sustainability into their new product development process in ways ranging from specifically creating “green” products (e.g., Brooks Green Silence, with its BioMoGo biodegradable midsole) to the reduction of the environmental impact of its “regular” products (e.g., Apple’s use of a recyclable aluminum enclosure for its Mac Pro computer).
The majority of this guide will focus on product-level sustainability considerations, but it’s helpful to keep in mind that sustainability isn’t the domain of just one part of the business. In fact, a truly sustainable product can only exist within the context of a much broader system that supports its positive impact on people, planet, and profit.
 For more on Interface, see http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Sustainability.aspx
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