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Watching out for the Kids

Posted: 12:11PM July 19th, 2016 | Comments

 

While I was walking home the other day, I couldn’t help but let my thoughts snowball into the “what is the meaning of sustainability” discussion. That day I had discussed the subject with a few different peers who each brought a slightly different perspective to the table. Their thoughts made me reevaluate my definition of the word - as I so often do - but this time I came to a definition whose simplicity helps me advance the argument for sustainable practices every day.

 

For many, sustainability means something vaguely related to nature and “going green”--and with any true meaning often washed out in marketing campaigns, who wouldn’t have a vague idea?  

 

Growing up in Viroqua, WI, a small town known for its ties to idyllic trout fishing, all things “Driftless,” and an agricultural revolution that begot Organic Valley, I always thought of sustainability through the lens of the environment. To me being sustainable meant producing food in a way that ensured the soil would continue to produce food in the future and it meant getting energy from sources that neither exhausted scarce resources nor significantly damaged the earth in the process.

 

After dabbling in the world of small business, I realized that my definition of sustainability was missing the financial component. So I zoomed out to make room for the financial and the environmental bottom line in my lens and by doing this I realized that, contrary to some beliefs, the two are not mutually exclusive. Through my research and my experience I realized that by shifting to renewable energy sources for their facilities, by composting their food waste on site, and by implementing other sustainability measures, businesses could save money and improve their financial bottom line. Not only that, but I realized that without regard for long-term financial health, my concept of sustainability was unsustainable.

 

That day, the discussions I had drove home the importance of this third component of sustainability. I finally realized that a business can have good environmental performance numbers and a revenue model that’s viable in the long term, but they aren’t sustainable until they are also invested in their community’s well-being, until they have paid parental leave, and until their HR policies reflect a healthy world. At some point, not adding these components to their philosophy means fostering burnout, which, by definition is unsustainable. So here I was, faced with the undeniable reality that sustainability comprises three core concepts: environmental performance, or, harmony, financial viability, and social well-being.

 

But this definition of the ever-elusive concept still lacked people. While environmental and financial sustainability are important and do go hand-in-hand, the social side of sustainability is arguably more important. Without it, a company can only rely on tactics of oppression to continue meeting their goals. Yes, it’s necessary to provide jobs and a healthy natural environment for our world’s citizens, but the businesses providing those jobs will not last unless they celebrate their employees personhood and grant them equal rights and opportunities.  

 

Now, this was and is by no means an original thought. But walking home that day I was in search of some other way of framing the thought, one that might cut through preconceived notions with its simplicity. My internal dialogue was set against the backdrop of an election cycle and the constant bickering, reframing, and repositioning for which they’re known. I wanted an idea that was non-partisan, an idea that wasn’t tied to radical movements and their distracting reputations.

 

At this moment I realized that, although sustainability is often misrepresented, or convoluted, by using its end goal, one can cut through the equally convoluted dialogue of partisan politics. If the end goal of sustainability is to ensure that we have a happy, healthy, and prosperous society for years to come, then taking a position on the issue is easier than it seems. That’s because put simply, caring about the end goal of sustainability means caring about our future and our children’s future. And what’s more non-partisan than caring for our children? So now when I’m faced with confusion surrounding this thing going around called “sustainability,” I just call it “watching out for the kids.”  

Leo Cox is a student at the Wisconsin School of Business here in Madison

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