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What Is In a Word – Sustainability

Recently, a Linked-In group was started called the “Sustainable Innovation” group.  It is populated by innovation practitioners who are interested in maintaining a dialogue on the issues of building innovation as a sustainable engine of success for companies and individuals.  However, language is a funny thing, and some words carry multiple meanings.  Sustainable innovation is just such a phrase.

Recently, a Linked-In group was started called the “Sustainable Innovation” group.  It is populated by innovation practitioners who are interested in maintaining a dialogue on the issues of building innovation as a sustainable engine of success for companies and individuals.  However, language is a funny thing, and some words carry multiple meanings.  Sustainable innovation is just such a phrase.

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One the one hand, sustainable innovation refers to the topic outlined above and discussed here in this blog.  Sustainable innovation has a second meaning which is the practice of innovation in service of a green (or sustainability) initiative.  Thanks to this accident of language, someone posted a question to the linked-in group relating to this latter definition of sustainability.  In his question he referenced Dr. Stuart Hart’s definition: “An economy that can be sustained indefinitely.”   In responding to his question I mentioned that I didn’t like this definition because it lacks the specificity for most enterprises to really relate to their specific strategic plans.  People need to be able to connect to a concept if they are to be able to recognize the actionable aspects of the concept.

Understandably, he responded asking what definition has the specificity to make it actionable.  Since green innovation is a hot topic these days, I would like to continue this discuss here, and invite you to join in.

In answer to the posed question, things are actionable when they relate to goals and span of control of the actor.  This is where Hart’s definition fall short for corporate actionability.  There aren’t too many companies that have as their goal the manipulation of an economy or that individually possess the span of control to be the steward of an economy.  (Although recent events certainly show the impact a group of companies can have.)

Rather for most companies, the goals reflect responding to the needs and interests of their business constituencies: shareholders, investors, employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and so on.  It is this ecosystem of constituencies and the way in which their interests have aligned with the agenda of social and eco responsibility that drive and define the meaning of sustainability as it relates to each company.   For each company, this may lead to a unique expression of the green agenda, but there are certainly recognizable trends in both the situational business drivers of green innovation as well as the paths that companies traverse as they begin moving down the road to becoming a green player.  (This was the topic of my recent presentation at the PDMA’s recent SecondLife panel discussion.)

So in general, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all definition for sustainability as it relates to companies.  If pressed for a definition, I would say sustainability in the corporate context is the alignment of business practices and operations to address social and environmental challenges that interface with the business.

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