I was reminded recently that the term “commercially sustainable” describes an enterprise or organization that either has the means or is generating sufficient profits to live another day. To me this is a critical component of sustainability. In essence, it means that if an initiative is costing money but doesn’t have an adequate return, it is not sustainable because it will be subject to next year’s budget allocation, yet has not become part of the fabric of the organization as a revenue-generating or cost-saving activity ordinarily would.
But in talking about sustainable business models, I believe it is also imperative that the sustainability of the planet be a prime consideration. Sustainability should be a primary goal in everything we do, and the most ideal profits or cost savings are those that can be derived from a sustainable base of existing resources. That’s how I believe we should be envisioning our future business models — to allow for proper allocation of the Earth’s resources.[tweetthis]Sustainability should be a primary goal in everything we do.[/tweetthis]
This made me think about an article I read a while back about the fact that Argentinian gauchos are disappearing because soybeans are now being grown on the pampas. Now I must admit to being a fan of the gauchos; indeed, I find watching them and their dogs move cattle across the pampas a mesmerizing spectacle. But preserving the Argentine cowboy tradition is the least of my concerns. In promoting the idea that growing soybeans is a more profitable use of the pampas than raising cattle, has anyone bothered to calculate the cost of so radical a change to the pampas and its impact on the general environment? The Pampas, after all, has not been significantly altered by the cattle that graze on it, which, if anything, have fertilized it naturally and nurtured it and thus allowed it to remain a living, breathing part of the biosphere, with its own unique ecology. But once this magnificent grassland is plowed under to grow genetically engineered row crops like soybeans, it will have been transformed from its natural state into industrial farmland, complete with chemical fertilizers and toxic herbicides that slowly but surely poison the soil.
Unfortunately, however, it is usually the thing that makes the most sense from a commercially sustainable standpoint that wins out in these situations — even if it’s only a short-term gain that’s involved. That’s why in order to save such resources for future generations, we must continually find ways to make their preservation more economically viable than their destruction or conversion to other purposes.
In the case of the pampas, for example, the Argentine government put restrictions on beef exports in order to increase its domestic consumption, and that helped to depress the market. But what it should have done — at least in my opinion — is sponsor a worldwide campaign to promote the superiority of free-range, grass-fed beef over the confined corn-fed variety, which would increase its value as a commodity and hopefully make it the choice of a majority of consumers.[tweetthis]We have to make saving resources more commercially desirable than the alternatives.[/tweetthis]
My point is that we simply can’t take a position that the importance of preserving and protecting our natural resources outweighs all other considerations, such as corporate profits, property rights and the need for jobs. Instead, we have to make saving those resources more commercially desirable than the alternatives, so that they make economic as well as environmental sense. Everyone in the sustainability field or in the sustainability department of your company needs to remember that sustainability has to be made an economically viable proposition. In today’s world, it’s going to take some creativity and bold moves to get there. But my feeling is that once we do, the intrinsic value of the planet’s resources will become more generally recognized, resistance to environmental concerns will start to dissipate, and making our habitat itself more sustainable will become a far easier feat.