The term “sustainability” is most often used in business ethics to refer to environmental sustainability. In its most general sense, environmental sustainability refers to the ability to make sustained (prolonged) use of some resource (e.g., by carefully managing a renewable resource like a woodlot). The most common use of the notion of sustainability in business contexts, perhaps, is within the term “sustainable development,” which was famously defined in the Brundtland Report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In some cases, the term “sustainability” is used to refer to the sustainability of a particular company’s methods of production and resource usage: a company’s use of a particular resource (such as wood or water or a rare mineral) might be said to be “sustainable” if those activities are consistent with long-term access to that resource in the future. In this sense of the word, sustainability is part of the broader set of questions falling under the heading of environmental ethics.
There have been attempts to use the term “sustainability” to refer to much more than environmental sustainability. Some use it as a kind of placeholder for all positive behaviours by companies—including paying attention to the interests not just of shareholders, but of society more generally, and of the planet as a whole.
See also in CEBE:
- Anderson, Ray. Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model. Peregrinzilla Press, 1999.
- Newton, Lisa. Ethics and Sustainability: Sustainability and the Moral Life. Prentice-Hall, 2002.