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Defining ‘Sustainability’ in Modern Business — is it Even Possible?

One word, more than any other, has come into the business and economics lexicon in the last several decades — sustainable.

Merriam-Webster defines sustainable as maintained at length without interruption or weakening. In the world of economics, sustainability offers a minimal condition we aspire to as we seek to, at the very least, prolong what we have and add a degree of certainty in an uncertain world.

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In the early days of my career, sustainable was used in two contexts:

  • Business competitiveness: In the business realm, we sought business models promoting a sustainable competitive advantage giving us lasting strength in the marketplace.
  • Economic development: In economic development, I frequently pointed out to students that a vision of the world where everyone had a standard of living roughly equivalent to the U.S. would require at least a 12-fold increase in economic output with all of it distributed to the less developed world with its faster population growth.


One had to question the viability of achieving such a vision, much less sustaining it given the environmental degradation and political strife that accompanies economics and resource allocation.

Hence, sustainable development must be locally appropriate in its expectations and use of labor and capital.

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As the perception of business in society evolved in the 1970s when baby boomers were coming of age, corporate social responsibility came into vogue. Some companies like Ben & Jerry’s even used the movement to differentiate themselves in a sustainable way. This emergence was simultaneous with environmental consciousness highlighted by dead rivers and extensive air pollution.

Since then, many scientists have begun concluding our planet is entering the Anthropocene age where dominant global changes are induced by human actions rather than ice ages, meteoric impacts or tectonic shifts of the earth’s crust. Human impact on the global ecosystem increasingly brings about changes as opposed to sustainability.

Concurrent to changes in the environment, what began post WWII with the accelerated decline of colonialism and emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s has accelerated in recent years as Black Lives Matter and Me Too exploded onto our social and political stage, bringing us to a point, at least in the U.S. and Europe, where fairness and inclusion of all people in our economic processes is highly desirable. This has become known as DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).

The merging of these economic, social and environmental trends yields the new narrative of sustainability, which is often referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line” where we simultaneously seek the objectives of business effectiveness and efficiency, maintenance, if not reversal, of environmental conditions, and social objectives of fairness and respect for diversity. The intersection of the three is the sweet spot of sustainability. 

But is this paradigm really sustainable?

During my youthful years of idealism, the narrative surrounding the political divide was between greedy business or capitalism and communists or socialists.

In reality, it was the right versus the left.

Today in the Western world we see a similar division between those on the right who resent feeling “canceled” and demeaned by the left who they label as “woke.” In essence, the right is trying to sustain its own past, which is embedded in its unique culture and beliefs. The left is frustrated by the laggards who are not transitioning quick enough in their respect for the growing awareness of the fragility of our environment and people who are different by color, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

The left is attempting to gain traction with an emerging paradigm fundamentally grounded in democracy with institutional protections of minority views and behaviors. Ironically, that sounds like a sustained expansion upon which our democratic republic was founded and is hypocritical from the perspective of those feeling canceled as they too seek protection of their minority rights in a system where the majority rules. 

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the noise of macroeconomic, social and political dynamics and emotions. To manage this complexity, I often find it helpful to personalize the debate as if it were a marriage.

In our committed relationships, truth is evasive, and the only path forward is from the middle with empathy — even when I think my partner is crazy. We need to act wisely with our emotions and be responsible with our wealth as we strive to sustain democracy, which is the most unique experiment in human history.


Tom Binnings is a senior partner at Summit Economics in Colorado Springs. He has more than 30 years of experience in economic and market research for public policy, strategic planning, business analytics and project finance. He can be reached at [email protected].