Sustainability

Key challenges and initial discussion questions

Responding to growing pressure from investors, customers, and domestic and international government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), companies are increasingly working to incorporate “sustainability” into strategic planning. But they are challenged to clearly define what this entails, determine benchmarks and measures for related performance, communicate intentions to and coordinate with suppliers, and achieve recognition of their efforts.

Sustainability can have multiple meanings but often comes back to the 1987 UN Brundtland Commission definition of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is also commonly described as balancing economic objectives with social equity (e.g., labor conditions) and environmental concerns – a “triple bottom line.” Generally this requires broadening perspectives on relevant stakeholders and product design horizons/lifecycles to include disposal and recycle (“cradle to grave” or even “cradle to cradle”.)

Advances in IT, communication and sensor technology make it more feasible to reach out to stakeholders and track and gather information on component/material sources and distribution on and well beyond the factory floor.  But this potential also raises expectations and reporting requirements of global authorities. Desired information and data forms may vary by stakeholder/regulator/supplier and across the product lifecycle making transparency and synthesis difficult.

Recent emphasis has shifted to climate change and energy usage/conservation.  Standards including the prevalence of “eco-labeling” reflect this trend. Here representative corporate risks include local impact on customers and suppliers; timing, evaluation selection, and transition to alternative technologies with choices growing; related new skill requirements; uncertain regulatory changes; and impact on reputation of acting too quickly or too slowly relative to competitors .

Standards play an important role in sustainability, potentially:

  • Guiding decisions; giving confidence in technologies based on consensus of a range of professionals in standards development;
  • Supporting/assuring transition from legacy systems;
  • Providing metrics for assessing and demonstrating performance; Standards can help translate qualitative demands subject to varying interpretation into concrete indicators and solutions;
  • Enabling coordination with globally as well as locally distributed suppliers;
  • Informing or delaying regulations.

Indeed an issue is the multitude of conflicting standards.

Initial discussion questions:

  • What are strategic implications for selecting standards, compliance and participation in standards development and potential harmonization?
  • How does this topic and standards influence product and service design?
  • How can standards help in balancing strategic priorities and incorporating sustainability?
  • What are illustrative cases reflecting variation in terms of standards impact based on type of sustainability, life cycle stage, supply chain roles and complexity, organizational and national cultures (sustainability has clear global dimensions), and other aspects of context?

Linked papers

Review our Sustainability Papers page for links to papers that are specific to sustainability.