On Sustainability

The first post on ZDNET! And if that isn’t scary enough I kind of need to spend some time explaining the concept of ‘sustainability’, the subject matter of this blog.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

The first post on ZDNET! And if that isn’t scary enough I kind of need to spend some time explaining the concept of ‘sustainability’, the subject matter of this blog. Nailing custard to a wall would be so much easier. Ask ten people what sustainability means and you will get seventeen different answers. The big challenge then in writing this blog is how to avoid howling contradictions of my own.

To start at first principles, the most often used definition of sustainability first coined by Gro Brundtland, defines sustainable development as development that

‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

For business, this is about achieving a good balance between financial performance and social and environmental impact which means consideration of stakeholder interests beyond shareholders including employees, suppliers, partners, communities and civil society. This is where it starts to get somewhat contentious. Should a CEO really consider the needs of broader interest groups or simply focus only on shareholders? Is there really a fundamental conflict between different stakeholders over an expanded time horizon?

Important also is consideration of economic externalities including environmental costs and also benefits drawn into business from society such as the availability of an educated work force and critical infrastructure. And its easy to forget that the greatest impact business has on society is the overwhelmingly positive role it plays as a primary generator and distributor of wealth.

Globalization has given real impetus to this amorphous area often interchangeably defined as sustainability, corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility and corporate responsibility. Globalization and pervasive technology has allowed business to proliferate and out run comprehensive regulatory control. The deal then is business must self govern and assure society of its benign influence. And in truth, we in business too are relative babes in the woods when it comes to globalization. Business models dreamed up over fifty years in the shelter of well ordered markets in Western Europe and the US are thrown to the wild frontiers of developing markets. All of this makes for really good theatre! We all make mistakes, some of greater consequence than others.

Getting down to specifics, sustainability at management level means taking responsibility for the entire business impact up and down the value chain. This extended view takes us beyond the ecological footprints and into the complexity of human rights considerations including labor rights, security, privacy, corruption controls, all in avoidance of even indirect complicity in the violation of human rights.

These are exciting times for the tech sector. It is truly enabling a flattening out of the global economy and offers the potential for much greater corporate accountability, market inclusiveness and resource efficiency. But technology is also raising new societal questions about privacy, IP rights, accessibility and security.

Something tells me there will be plenty of fodder here for conversation.

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