"How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top." These are the words of Yvon Chouinard, American rock climber, environmentalist and outdoor industry billionaire businessman who founded the company Patagonia. Patagonia is an outdoor clothing and gear company known for its focus on the environment and sustainability.
We, business owners and leaders, can learn from his philosophy.
We're doing business in interesting times. While our economy is challenging our business success on a daily basis, we're also aware that we can't continue for decades doing business the way we've been taught. Increasingly, the terms 'sustainability' and 'sustainable development' surface – in our boardrooms, our annual reports and even our tearooms.
While the term 'sustainability' has broad meanings and applications, it can be thought of as the effort of thousands of people from as many places and contexts to find ways of dealing with a difficult situation, namely that we are exploiting the earth's natural resources much faster than they can replenish themselves, yet billions of people in all corners of the world still don't have access to the resources they need merely to survive.
The 'business as usual' trajectory is no longer sufficient – for society as a whole or for businesses themselves.
In business, sustainability is often expressed as the triple bottom line: to manage effectively profits, people and the planet. Yet, this definition doesn't capture the complex and interconnected nature of risks unfolding today. According to the Financial Times, a sustainable business can survive shocks because it is intimately connected to healthy economic, social and environmental systems.
To help us on our way, the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals – 17 goals to be reached by 2030 in order to create a planet that is both equitable and doesn't consume the earth's resources faster than it has time to replenish them. It means a better planet for everyone, everywhere.
What does sustainability mean for me and my business?
Sustainability presents an exciting challenge – an opportunity not only to do business differently, but to change the way we live as individuals. Sustainability isn't something abstract and intangible. It starts with each of us, with our every interaction.
While you're sitting behind a computer and interacting only with the people closest to you and perhaps the handful you encounter at the water dispenser, your job makes connections that impact throughout the building and far beyond. Sustainability is about tracing these connections – and making them fair and equitable.
The example of paper
Think about the paper on which you scribble notes in your meetings. It started with a sapling, which had to grow to a certain height, before it could be cut down, turned into pulp, processed to various degrees depending on how white and strong the paper has to be, packaged, transported, and set somewhere on a warehouse shelf. Your stationary manager orders a few hundred packs. From here it's packed back into a truck and transported to your office where someone receives it and someone else brings it up to your floor to refill the printer.
To get one sheet of paper to your desk involved a few hundred individuals and resources far beyond a single tree – water, fuel, electricity and much more. Once you have finished with that paper, it continues to exist as a material flow. Sustainability is about understanding these links and giving each the opportunity to flourish.
Sustainability is the bottom line
A business that allows its people and its resources to flourish is better positioned to flourish itself. Leading companies today are rethinking their position to try to understand themselves as embedded within a society, which is again embedded within an environment. Individuals, organisations and communities have a critical dependency on both these spheres to succeed and therefore have to operate in a way that supports and uplifts both the society and the environment.
We have known for some time, as highlighted in The Guardian , that companies with progressive environmental, social and governance policies and practices are financially outperforming their less sustainable peers. An article on Forbes lists companies that reached greater heights since making sustainable shifts.
In complex and turbulent times, navigating the journey towards sustainability is one of the most pressing and exciting challenges for businesses today. By paying attention to the way in which you're climbing your mountain and not only to reaching the top, I propose you will be happier and more invigorated when you get there. You may even start to question what mountain you are truly climbing.
Business owners and business leaders should learn more about what sustainability means, what the relationship between unsustainability and inequality is, and how we can transition to a more sustainable world.
Adél Strydom is a writer and communications professional and works at the Stellenbosch University Sustainability Institute at Lynedoch outside Stellenbosch. She is currently completing her MPhil in Sustainable Development. She writes copy for the sustainability short courses offered by USB-ED.