There are as many different definitions of sustainability as there are people who use the term.
Sustainability was first defined in 1987 by a United Nations Commission that characterized sustainable development in this way: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Since that time, the concept of sustainability has evolved from its original focus on the environment to encompass more areas. Forum For the Future, on organization focused on sustainable development, defines sustainability this way: “A dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential and improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance Earth’s life support systems.”
More recently, a definition has emerged that focuses on a concept called “the triple bottom line” for business, which involves balancing financial, social and environmental impacts: sustainability is the successful balancing of economic prosperity, environmental health and social equity.
The Dow Jones Sustainability Index takes a more corporate focused approach: “Corporate Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments. Corporate sustainability leaders achieve long-term shareholder value by gearing their strategies and management to harness the market's potential for sustainability products and services while at the same time successfully reducing and avoiding sustainability costs and risks.”
Indeed, sustainability has emerged as a way to look and think about social responsibility.
Among companies in the meat industry and our customers, generally accepted definitions require companies to balance the impact of business practices on the following.
People: is employee safety and well-being ensured so that their health and welfare are sustained and that they are compensated in a way that permits them a decent living? Beyond employees, do business practices and products produced ensure the health and well-being of customers who consume a company’s products and/or live near a company’s operations?
Livestock: are the livestock processed by meat companies treated in a way that ensures their welfare according to generally accepted standards? Do these practices ensure the long-term health of livestock?
- Financial health: do business practices ensure that the company’s financial health can be maintained into the future? Are investors’ investments in the company protected and sustained?
- Community: viewing a community – both the physical aspects and the people within it – as resources to be protected, companies are called upon to consider how they reinvest in the communities in which they operate.
- Environment and natural resources: do a company’s business practices minimize risk to the environment and do they seek to conserve and replenish natural resources?
Ultimately, a company must adopt its own definition of sustainability and establish its own principles based upon a company’s mission, business model and corporate values. The definitions above offer a framework for thinking about this increasingly complex area.
There is no off-the-shelf model that can be used to define sustainability and create programs. But by sharing definitions, ideas and programs, companies together can help one another develop successful programs to meet both customer and consumer expectations.