If you decide to earn a degree in business and management, one of the key concepts you will encounter is corporate sustainability. The following examples of sustainability in business may suggest ways you can make a positive impact on the world around you. But what exactly is sustainability in business, and can companies truly become “green” while remaining profitable and serving their shareholders? Explore this in-depth guide to find answers and learn from some modern sustainability in business examples:
What Defines Sustainability in Business?
Running a company is a balancing act of managing risks. Executives and department managers must constantly balance the need to invest in resources and human capital with the need to remain fiscally prudent. Similarly, they must meet the company’s present-day needs while pressing forward toward the future by achieving milestones.
Sustainability in business is a multifaceted concept typically defined by three pillars:
1. Profit (Economic)
Economic sustainability means supporting the company’s profitability far into the future. For example, it would not be sustainable to exhaust resources meeting today’s needs if the company can no longer survive as a result. Another example involves a company positioned to execute rapid expansion into new markets. If that rapid expansion is not sustainable in the long run, it is not worth attempting. Executives must ensure that growth is sustainable for the company’s long-term health.
2. People (Social)
This pillar is often defined in terms of the company’s labor force. Investing in a company’s human capital is always a smart move since well-trained, happier workers are more productive. However, a company should not stop there. Social sustainability involves every group of people affected by the company. For example, a clothing retailer might choose its vendors carefully to avoid inadvertently supporting child labor. Essentially, the social pillar is about being a good neighbor – locally and globally.
3. Planet (Environmental)
Environmental sustainability is usually the first thing that comes to mind in relation to corporate sustainability. There are many ways for a company to become more “green,” such as reducing waste, reducing carbon emissions and using recycled products. One common misconception about environmental sustainability is that becoming greener causes companies to lose profits. Quite often, they find that the opposite is true. Becoming environmentally sustainable can offer financial benefits. For example, modern consumers are far more conscientious about where they spend their dollars. People are often more willing to spend money on sustainable products than they are to buy a cheaper, less sustainable version.
Sustainability Initiatives Exemplified by Ben & Jerry's
To cool off on a hot summer’s day, you might reach for a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s famous ice cream. Today, the brand is virtually ubiquitous – proof that environmental and social sustainability can indeed support profitability. In fact, Ben & Jerry’s was one of the leading pioneers of the sustainability movement.
Founded in the 1970s by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the company had a mission of social and environmental responsibility from the start. Ben and Jerry, with director and board chairman Jeff Furman, ran the company on the premise that businesses need not be solely money-making machines – they can also be a force for positive change.1
To that end, the founders first looked for ways to improve the company’s environmental sustainability. Paper mills formerly used elemental chlorine to bleach wood pulp. The process created toxic wastewater that then entered the environment. Ben & Jerry’s spearheaded the innovation of food packaging made from unbleached paper.1
The company also pioneered sustainable agriculture – a term that was virtually unknown when the company began embracing it. They partnered with dairy suppliers to reduce toxic runoff from farms. They also spearheaded initiatives to discourage the use of bovine growth hormones.1
And, of course, Ben & Jerry’s has long been concerned with social sustainability. When the company was founded, it took on the mission of improving the quality of life for its workforce as the company’s profits grew. The company adopted several policies, including:
- Company stock and additional stock options for every employee
- A living wage for employees
- PartnerShops operated by nonprofit groups as job training initiatives
- Evaluations of human rights records in countries where the brand is sold, along with culturally sensitive activism
- An interdepartmental values council, which meets quarterly to review social initiative progress and generate new ideas1
In addition, Ben & Jerry’s was among the first companies to publish publicly accessible reports of their environmental and social performance. This action may encourage other companies to learn from their sustainability practices well into the future.1
How Clothing Retailers Run Sustainable Businesses
Among industries most responsible for polluting the planet, you might assume that international travel and shipping are the top offenders. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all global carbon emission. This number is predicted to increase to 26% by 2050.2
This tendency is due to the rise of “fast fashion,” a phenomenon that turns catwalk trends into cheap clothing that is temporarily trendy but will end up in a landfill all too soon when it goes out of style. In fact, 85% of textiles ends up in garbage dumps annually.2 Although that clothing is cheap to make, its environmental cost is tremendous. It takes 713 gallons of water to make one cotton shirt.3 The fashion industry also pollutes the oceans with microplastics.
Further, the fashion industry is rife with human rights abuses. Fast fashion brands rely on cheap, overseas labor, including child labor. It’s common for garment workers to receive less than a living wage even when forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions. One study showed 60% of female garment industry workers had been threatened with violence and intimidation.4 The unsafe conditions have also caused countless injuries and deaths — most notably in the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. At least 1,132 garment workers were killed and more than 2,500 workers injured.5
The fashion industry has more than its share of problems, but some brands are working to change that. By prioritizing both planet and people while continuing to work toward profits, the following brands are pioneering the push toward sustainable, slow fashion.
This unique clothing brand designs and manufactures specialty swimwear formulated with SPF protection. The garments have a sun protection factor, and some pieces cover up more skin. This design allows individuals to wear less sunscreen while enjoying a day in the water. The goal is to reduce the amount of sunscreen polluting the oceans.
In addition, Alma Society is planning to release a new collection manufactured entirely from recycled plastic bottles. These bottles polluted the Mediterranean Sea before they were recovered. The company plans to convert all its collections to this special fabric in the near future.
Furthermore, Alma Society recognizes the importance of social sustainability. It maintains a commitment to offering fair wages and safe working conditions to all its garment workers.3
Eco-Stylist is a true industry disrupter. It’s not actually a fashion manufacturer. Rather, it’s a curated marketplace that showcases men’s fashion brands committed to sustainable practices. Currently, Eco-Stylist showcases more than 40 brands that have been thoroughly vetted by the company for environmental and social sustainability practices.
The founder of Eco-Stylist, Garik Himebaugh, explained the mission of his company in an interview with Forbes magazine. He talked about how he felt a sense of betrayal learning about the methods used in the fashion industry. Himebaugh reported encountering significant roadblocks in his effort to found a company dedicated to sustainability. Yet, he persisted in his mission and was ultimately rewarded with year-over-year growth and rave reviews from customers.3
Examples of Megacorporations With Sustainable Business Models
Even if sustainable business practices work on a small scale, can they work for megacorporations with international reach? The surprising truth is that best practices in sustainability can indeed be scalable, as the following case studies demonstrate.
The famed Swedish furniture manufacturer has long been committed to sustainable practices in all facets of its operations, from supply chain to point of sale. For example, the company sources almost half the wood for its products from sustainable foresters. IKEA buys 100% of its cotton from companies that meet the Better Cotton guidelines, which set limitations on the use of chemical fertilizers, energy and water. In addition, more than 700,000 solar panels provide electricity for IKEA stores.6
Unilever is a megacorporation wholly committed to being a driving force for international positive change. The company has established the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, which sets three main goals:
- Improve the health and well-being of more than one billion people.
- Reduce the environmental impact of the company by half no later than 2030.
- Improve the livelihoods of millions of people.7
The company has set out to accomplish all its goals by promoting opportunities for women, requiring fairness in the workplace and curbing greenhouse gases, water usage, waste and non-sustainable raw material sourcing. In 2015, the CEO was awarded the Champion of the Earth Award by the United Nations for the company’s great strides in improving its sustainability.6
Like other companies geared toward sustainability, Panasonic has set ambitious goals for reducing its energy usage and making sustainable products. Taking things a step further, the company even relocated its American headquarters in the name of sustainability. Its former base in a suburban area of New Jersey required employees to undergo lengthy commutes. To reduce employees' reliance on gas-powered cars, Panasonic moved its headquarters near a central train station in downtown Newark.6
Beyond these actions, Panasonic is partnering with multiple companies to build a Sustainable Smart Town in Fujisawa City, Japan. The goal is to create a completely sustainable community – a model town of the future.8
You can learn from more examples of sustainability in business and prepare to lead companies into the future when you earn your degree online or on-campus at Grand Canyon University. The Colangelo College of Business offers a diverse selection of degree programs, including programs leading to a Bachelor of Science in Applied Entrepreneurship, a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and a Bachelor of Science in Supply Chain and Logistics Management. If you already hold an undergraduate degree, consider advancing your career qualifications with an MBA, such as the Master of Business Administration with an Emphasis in Leadership. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to find out why GCU could be the perfect path to your academic goals.
3Forbes, 10 Slow Fashion Brands Committed To Sustainability in April of 2021
4Reuters, One Study of Garment Industry Workers in Bengaluru in April 2021
7Unilever, Sustainable Living in March 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.