There's really nothing new about sustainability

In recent years, I’ve noticed an entirely new vocabulary being used to describe the modern business approach to sustainability. A number of them cropped up during our panel discussion at Singapore’s Media Leader’s Forum in December – resilience, adaptation, positive social change, CSR, behavioural change, going green.

But how ‘modern’ is this ethical approach? In actual fact, there’s nothing new about sustainable business practices.

Many companies throughout history have implemented such strategies, long before we had specific terminology for them. In the past, a ‘sustainable’ approach was considered by some corporations as simply common sense or just good practical business.

I’d argue that some of the initiatives implemented by business leaders throughout history outshine today’s examples.

It’s not difficult to find businesses from the past which operated in a truly sustainable manner. Many of the businesses established by the Quakers well over a hundred years ago – Cadbury, Rowntree’s, Clarks and Quaker Oats – continue to thrive today.

In the mid-19th century, religious persecution banned the Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends) from studying at Britain’s major universities and pursuing careers in education, law and medicine.

As a result they excelled as entrepreneurs, establishing their own companies and financial institutions. Focused originally on trade, then manufacturing, these businesses were created to provide opportunities for the local community.

A key characteristic of these enterprises was a solid value system which directed corporate ethics and key business practices. Considering the fact that global CSR authority John Elkington only coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line” (people, profit, planet) in 1999, these businesses were truly ahead of their time.

Founded on the principle that human endeavours should positively impact both people and the planet, they were consistently guided by a strongly-held sense of personal responsibility and accountability.

Their precepts included: integrity, trust, valuing employees, supporting local charities, enhancing the local community and reducing negative impact on the earth. These simple but effective ethics guided the day-to-day practices of every aspect of the business.

By establishing entire villages, they created solid communities of shared values and embraced common ethics. This approach, which led to high staff retention and excellent safety standards, pre-dated psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 theory of the Hierarchy of Human Needs – physiological, security, social, esteem and self-actualisation.

The economic success experienced by the Quakers’, like all great leaders in business sustainability, was the direct result of genuine ethics being applied to daily operations. The savings made and profits generated were a positive by-product of principles that every employee of the business believed in.

Their straight-forward approach has been referred to as ‘principled capitalism’ – an ability to both make a profit and maintain ethical standards. In fact they quickly became icons of best practice and an inspiration to the anti-slavery movement.

Their enlightened approach to human rights, which embraced gender equality and cultural diversity, influenced the activist William Wilberforce and resulted in the British campaign to abolish the slave trade in 1783.

Sound familiar? This approach has become a key aspect of modern day business management – today we refer to it as both ‘sustainability’ and CSR.

The good news is that sustainability is now seen by many business leaders as a necessary and integral aspect of conducting business. The bad news is that they often fail to see it as a holistic practice which should actually guide all departments and all staff. Ask yourself where sustainability sits in your business.

Dr. Martin Blake is an international sustainability expert and strategist, and chairman and company director of the The Green Asia Group.

This article was originally published in the Singapore Business Review and had been reprinted with permission.

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