I recently attended a Global Business Club luncheon in Lansing, Michigan. The main speaker was Andrew Mangan, the Executive Director of the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development. He talked about a plethora of topics surrounding sustainable development on a local stage and global stage. What is this sustainable development? It is a term most everyone has heard, but it holds many implications for the future. Simply put, for a business it means that it can thrive in the long term.

The term became widely used as it is thought of now in 1987, after it appeared in a UN report by Norway’s former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It means more than just “going green.” Many times a company can really push their green initiatives and use it more as a public relations stunt. Often it’s popular for a company to push these and not think of other implications. This happens often and is called “greenwashing,” where people concentrate more on the green efforts than on the effort itself.

Andrew Mangan spoke of sustainable development as having three pillars. These include economic growth, ecological balance, and social progress. Economic growth means helping people and businesses meet their economic needs. For people it is about securing food, water, shelter, and comforts. For businesses on the other hand, it means turning a profit. Ecological balance is used to protect and restore the Earth. We can do this by controlling climate change, preserving natural resources, and preventing waste. Finally social progress happens to address conditions that affect us all, including poverty, violence, injustice, education, public health, and labor and human rights. We must also be sure to value diversity and different cultures as this world becomes ever more flat.

But sustainable development will not work if only a few are on board. It will take independent commitments from companies. Walmart started a process called reverse integration sustainability, which tells suppliers they must cut packaging and emissions or they won’t use them. It will take great communication. One of the most important lines of communication is cross-industry. Europe set up a great system, called cross-industry social dialogue, which was made to promote dialogue between trade unions and employers' organizations in key areas common to all fields of employment and social affairs. In order to be sustainable, we must work together. There are multiple opportunities especially in energy and health care integration.

This is a project that needs to happen on a global scale, but there is a lot to be done locally. A good theme to abide by is to think globally, yet act locally. A great opportunity seen here is called by-product synergy. By-product synergy is the matching of under-valued waste, transportation, energy and other streams with potential users, which creates new revenues and saves money while saving the environment. One great program that is a model other countries can hope to achieve is NISP England, which creates jobs and helps a companies bottom line by efficiency and collaboration. There are openings for this to be done on a regional scale, and it is a great opportunity.

Sustainable development is the unifying element of business. It’s important to remember that the business of business is more than business. Every crisis is now an opportunity. It is now our chance to build a strategy for sustainability into the cores of our businesses and our lives. Such a strategy is a necessity, not an idealistic illusion we can only hope to achieve.

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