Unpacking sustainability


How do you define sustainability? We use this term so often, but what does it really mean? I’ve seen it tied to environmentalism: using less energy, fewer natural resources, reducing, reusing and recycling. While all of these things help us sustain our place on the planet, there’s more to sustainable business than offsetting a carbon footprint.

An op-ed in The Conversation said that It’s time to ban the empty word ‘Sustainability,’ citing that it has become a set of check boxes instead of a way to create long-lasting success. But before we put a moratorium on the word, let’s unpack it bit.

For me, sustainability is a journey. It’s a moving target. It’s different for everyone and it can change from day to day. One day, sustaining your business might mean cutting back on expenses in order to pay your staff. The next, it might mean creating a set of competitive benefits to attract more.

Alice Jasper, who runs our Good For Michigan program, talks about sustainability as a constellation. She says that people, planet and profit are not separate triple bottom line items — they are the intersections of all three. And if we magnify these intersections, we’ll see how many opportunities there are to bring more people to the table and invested in triple bottom line practices.

I appreciate this analogy for a number of reasons. First, a constellation is a lovely visual. Second, it helps us see the whole picture and the ripple effects. Most importantly, it sheds light on the barriers that prevent more business communities from participating in an inclusive and regenerative economy.

If we’re going to put a moratorium on anything, it should be these barriers. Sustainability shouldn’t be a privilege. Every business deserves to sit at the table and create positive change — whatever that means to them. Michigan has dozens of resources that are designed to meet you where you are. The Good For Michigan website is designed to be a hub of these resources. Whether you need help attracting talent, sharing your story, reducing overhead expenses, or putting solar panels on your roof, there are people and programs set up as access points.

Being a sustainable business doesn’t mean you’ve finished checking all the boxes. It means you see them as a big picture that will exist whether they’re checked off or not.

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Elissa Sangalli is committed to working at the leading edge of values-based capitalism — building sustainable local economies that put people first. As the president of Grand Rapids-based Local First since 2007, Sangalli has brought together nearly a thousand businesses in West Michigan to collaborate in building a vibrant community that encourages sustainable business development. She has been named an Exemplary Executive by the Grand Rapids Young Non-Profit Professionals, a B Corp Measure What Matters Champion and one of the Business Journal’s 40 Under Forty leaders three times. She is also a Business Alliance for Local Living Economies fellow and a B Corp ambassador.