Sustainability: The Economic Pillar

Understanding the Economic Pillar of Sustainability

When it comes to sustainability, the old definition of the term—using natural resources in such a way that they are available to future generations—is no longer what sustainability is all about. Today sustainability refers to what many call the “three pillars”:

  1. People (protecting our health)
  2. Planet (protecting the environment)
  3. Profits

It’s pretty easy to comprehend what the “people” and “planet” pillars are all about, but the “profits” pillar can be confusing.

Does it mean a company should make less money? Not at all. A business is in business to make money; that’s its ultimate goal.

Does it mean a company must share most or all its profits with its employees or the local community? That does happen, but it is not specifically what this pillar is about.

Does it mean that profits cannot undermine the other two pillars? Now we are getting closer.

The truth is, the profits pillar can have a variety of meanings depending on the company or industry involved, what it sells, the services it offers, the goals and mission of the organization, etc. A good example of the profits pillar is the one set forth a decade ago by the then-CEO of Walmart, Lee Scott. He said that the profits pillar, as it applies to Walmart, is “to sell products that sustain people and the environment.” This sounds much like an inspirational goal, but Walmart has made it practical.

For instance, beginning in 2011, the company put greater emphasis on marketing fresh produce, helping to steer customers away from fatty and less nutritional processed foods. It also found ways to reduce the costs of healthier foods. The company committed to opening up to 300 stores that serve U.S. Department of Agriculture–approved desserts. These are lower-calorie desserts that help replace fat-laden and processed desserts.

As a result of its efforts, Walmart is a recipient of the Partnership for a Healthier America Award.* In addition, as a result of this and other sustainability efforts, the company has been able to reduce operating costs by more than $1 billion since 2005.

Other examples of the profits pillar could and often do include the following:

  • Local businesses supporting other local businesses, which can generate considerable economic benefits for the entire community
  • Ending practices in which companies make profits at any costs, no matter how they may affect the environment, people, or the community
  • Providing a sustainable economic model that ensures fair distribution and allocation of natural resources so that economic growth does not negatively affect the local ecosystem
  • Complying with government regulations, especially those that pertain to the safety of workers and those living in the community
  • Fairly treating employees along with providing benefits such as health care
  • Using profits to initiate new sustainability programs and initiatives
  • Implementing “fair trade” practices, such as the purchasing of coffee and produce from suppliers that do not take advantage of farmers and producers in the developing world
  • Implementing strategies that focus on improving business efficiencies and worker productivity

Many times the profits pillar can be addressed just by giving back to a community in the form of products and services. Those in the professional cleaning industry have an opportunity to do this each year for the Green Apple Day of Service.

I always encourage members of our industry to get involved with this program. This one day of service is designed to give parents, teachers, students, and local organizations the opportunity to transform local schools into healthier, safer, and more productive learning environments. Especially for distributors and building service contractors, this is one of the most effective ways to satisfy the profits pillar of sustainability.

Stephen Ashkin is Chief Executive Officer of The Sustainability Dashboard Tools, LLC, and the leading advocate for sustainability in the professional cleaning and building industries.

*The Partnership for a Healthier America Award is a program designed to help fight childhood obesity.