The two keys to business sustainability

Sustainability and well-being have a lot to do with what people consume. What people consume has a lot to do with what businesses produce. What businesses produce has a lot to do with their goals and the decisions they make to achieve them.

If businesses are to achieve sustainability and contribute to well-being there are two key questions they must ask themselves:

  1. Are we doing the right things?
  2. Are we doing things right?

Doing the right things

Even though people argue about what the right things are, when it comes to sustainability and well-being, it is quite clear what the wrong things are. For instance, if you are in business to drill for oil, sell cigarettes, or design and manufacture handguns, styrofoam containers, plastic water bottles, or any sort of useless junk then you are doing the wrong thing.

The ‘right things’ support:

  • individual well-being
  • human instrinsic values
  • social equity and the common good
  • diverse and thriving local communities
  • healthy environments
  • environmentally sustainable production and consumption

Anything that harms or degrades the environment, or anything that harms or degrades people, is the wrong thing. If you are doing the wrong thing, but doing it right i.e. efficiently, it is still wrong. Less bad is still bad.

Having a ‘critical sense’, as the eminent design educator Ezio Manzini calls it, is the ability a business person has, to know what is right and what is not.

The right thing is necessary and harmless

Before designing, producing and selling anything it is important to answer some straightforward questions honestly and sincerely. For example:

  1. Is this product/service really necessary? Why?
  2. Who does this product/service really benefit? In what way?
  3. Who or what does this product/service harm?

Doing things right

Assuming you are producing something that is right (i.e. necessary and harmless), a business can then concentrate on doing things right. This is where factors like resource efficiency come in. Other factors that make goods and services more sustainable are durability, recyclability and source of materials.

In terms of environmental sustainability, two very important principles for doing things right are:

  1. Thinking in systems – working out how things relate to, and impact upon, their larger system
  2. Cradle-to-cradle – this is about the whole lifecycle of products and services and thinking of materials and components as being in a ‘technical nutrient’ cycle

Click here to read more about the Design for Sustainability basics

From a well-being point of view, the ideal business is small. In contrast to big businesses, in small businesses:

  • there is usually less waste and fewer external costs
  • the work is generally less abstract and more meaningful
  • all staff tend to have more input into decision-making
  • there are benefits to local communities, with profits going to owners who live locally and work in the business
  • customers are more likely known to the business, they are not anonymous.