What is the business management strategy in which organizations set high standards of environmental and social performance? In the early 1990s this was called social responsibility, meaning the establishment of business practices that positively impact people and the environment. More than a decade later, this is referred to as the triple bottom line: where the integration of social, environmental and economic considerations creates the healthy bottom line of a sustainable business. Today the triple bottom line has been embraced by world-class companies. Business success at these companies is evaluated based on economic, environmental and social performance indicators. Corporate sustainability is the new phrase used to describe the approach. Look at the website of any multi-national corporation and there will likely be a prominent page presenting the company's record of corporate sustainability.
The European Union (EU) has adopted the concept of sustainability and created directives that mandate corporate responsibility for products produced. Australia also has a focus on sustainable business practices. Environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals need to understand the principles of sustainability because our corporate leaders expect that knowledge of current business concepts. In some organizations, the leadership of sustainability efforts has been placed with EHS management. This is often because efforts to eliminate hazardous constituents in products, reducing waste, recycling of manufactured products and doing the right thing in regards to people, also will reduce exposures and injuries to employees and the community. Sustainability is a good fit for EHS professionals and may be a means of advancement in the organization. This paper will explore the concept and principles of sustainability, what it means to organizations and how it applies to EHS professionals.
Early on the idea of a businesses being socially responsible meant that the business had a role in society. The business needed to consider and address the needs of society. Often these were thought of as patriarchal businesses that "did the right thing" for the community. Other business leaders might have perceived the approach as community relations or donations for tax purposes. Many in the author's experience felt that only "touchy feely" or "earthy crunchy" companies would do such a thing. Businesses traditionally defined success as sustained growth and positive financial results for the shareholders. Although socially responsible companies have made money, the perception was often that this was an accident rather than by design. On the contrary, Collins and Porras in their study presented in the book "Built to Last" found that socially responsible companies in the same industries made more money than their competitors.