MIT Sloan Management Review: What is Sustainability?

The MIT Sloan Management Review magazine features Innovation Hubs which are collaborative spaces for capturing the best thinking and scholarly research on the issues transforming the business environment, one of which is Sustainability and Innovation. In the article, What is Sustainability?, they define it as:

the idea that systems—including natural and human ones—need to be regenerative and balanced in order to last. We believe that that means all kinds of systems: economic, environmental, societal, and personal.The sustainability question is: How can we design and build a world in which the Earth thrives and people can pursue flourishing lives?

The Sloan Review also notes that there are other definitions depending on who you ask and often spark debates.

Yes—too many to count. Some focus on environmental impact alone, or emphasize the idea of the triple bottom line (measuring performance of organizations or communities on separate economic, environmental, and social dimensions). One of the best known general definitions emerged from a 1987 United Nations report about sustainable development, which was described as development “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”Increasingly, attempts at definition are recognizing that the needs of natural, economic, and social systems are so interdependent that have to be considered in an integrated way.

In doing research for sustainable jewelry, I came across a lot of content not only pertaining environmental concerns, but also sustainable and ethical in terms of social and economic responsibility. Concerns with conflict diamonds/ the Kimberly Process have long been brought up within the jewelry industry and even more recently in past years with the movie Blood Diamond.

Looking back at the 1987 United Nations report about sustainable development and how they described it, it is very much in the same lines of ‘intergenerational equity’ -holding the idea that future generations should have the same or greater access to resources and assets (such as quality and diversity of environment and human rights) as the current generation.

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1 comment
  1. Great topic. As you noted, there are many people going through this exercise with the results being many different answers, but we’re at a fragile point in the evolution of the notion of sustainability in modern culture, drifting between the suggestions that can make a difference and the suggestions that are little more than garnish for the conscience. As a result, I think it’s impossible to go through this exercise too many times.

    I actually like the first definition for it’s simplicity. When I took a stab at it myself, I came up with:

    “A network of interactions that achieves a consistent sum of resource components to operate and evolve indefinitely without collapse or additional influx of energy.”

    Similar, I think. At the same time, I think it can be just as important to identify what sustainability is not. Counter to the opinions of many, sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle. On the contrary, sustainability is the lifestyle.

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