Sustainability: Defining the Undefinable

CSR RatingsThe following is part of a series by our friends at CSRHub (a 3p sponsor) – offering free sustainability and corporate social responsibility ratings on over 5,000 of the world’s largest publicly traded companies. 3p readers get 40% off CSRHub’s professional subscriptions with promo code “TP40“.

By Cynthia Figge

At a recent sustainability conference, I spoke with the COO of a major manufacturing company who remarked that his company would not publish a sustainability report given the lack of specificity of the term, its implied breadth and seeming non-attainability. Instead, his company is focused on metrics for integrating their environmental work into their core business strategy and publishing an “environmental report.” Over the past 15 years, I’ve heard this sentiment many times. Companies struggle with the challenge of defining sustainability precisely enough to drive the collection of metrics, and a shared accountability for “hitting the numbers.”

What is a clear definition of the term “sustainability”? There is the Merriam Webster definition (“of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods”) and the succinct sentence on Wikipedia (“the capacity to endure”). Wikipedia also adds “For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.”

Perhaps the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, is that of theBrundtland Commission of the United Nations, published on March 20, 1987– “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

My consulting firm, EKOS International, defines sustainability as economic development that creates value for customers, shareholders, stakeholders, and society by designing and operating business in a way that aligns with ecosystems, in service of human prosperity, today and in the future.
Although these definitions may not be precise, I believe that they are mental models which can transform thinking.

EKOS was the first consultancy to draw the definition of big “S” as sustainability with three overlapping circles of ecological capital, human capital, and financial or manufactured capital whereby sustainability is achieved by optimizing business operations at the nexus of these systems. The importance of this definition is not its precision, but  the breakthrough idea that sustainability is not a trade-off of competing systems, or three bottom lines, but rather the true integration of the natural (N or ecosystem), human (H or social) and manufactured (M or industrial) systems.

For some people, sustainability primarily refers to the environment. For others it’s all encompassing,  like the term CSR (corporate social responsibility). As I’ve written before, the trend seems to be using CSR and sustainability interchangeably.

Each company should go through the process of defining sustainability for its own firm, because the mental model drives the work necessary to achieve the goal of a sustainable company, industrial system, and a sustainable world.


Cynthia Figge, Cofounder and COO of CSRHub is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Cynthia has worked with major organizations including BNSF, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow Jones, and REI to help craft sustainability strategy integrated with business. She was an Officer of LIN Broadcasting/McCaw Cellular leading new services development, and started a new “Greenfield” mill with Weyerhaeuser. She serves as Advisor to media and technology companies, and served as President of the Board of Sustainable Seattle. Cynthia has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Cynthia is based in the Seattle area.

CSRHub is a corporate social responsibility (CSR) ratings tool that allows managers, researchers, consultants, academics and individual activists to track the CSR and sustainability performance of major companies. We aggregate data from more than 90 sources to provide our users with a comprehensive source of CSR information on about 5000 publicly traded companies in 65 countries. CSRHub is a B Corporation. Browse our ratings at

Inset photo courtesy of loop_oh.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 5,000 companies from 135 industries in 65 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.CSRHub rates 12 indicators of employee, environment, community and governance performance and flags many special issues. We offer subscribers immediate access to millions of detailed data points from our 140-plus data sources. Our data comes from six socially responsible investing firms, well-known indexes, publications, “best of” or “worst of” lists, NGOs, crowd sources and government agencies. By aggregating and normalizing the information from these sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links each rating point back to its source.

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