18 min read

A New Definition: What is Sustainability in Business?


Harvard Business School is wrong. 

HBS, in their online publication Business Insights, writes sustainability in business “refers to doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole.”

Their definition, as I see it, is “Better Business 1.0” thinking. The focus here is on damage control.

Sustainability in business is about more than just about not doing harm (to people and the planet). That is a bare minimum. In my opinion, that’s table stakes for being “in business” at all. 

If version 1.0 is what we continue to accept for what it means to be sustainable in business, then we, as members of the business community, must push ourselves further. 

Sustainable business must be more ambitious. 

Not just about not harming, but in fact, seriously and measurably leaving all stakeholders (people and planet affected) better off. Yeah, taken quite literally, that’s a tall order—but I think that’s what’s genuinely required if we want to transform business to be a force for good.

So, in this post, we’ll offer a more ambitious definition of sustainability in business, tangible examples of what that can currently look like, and where companies can begin to adopt more sustainable practices themselves.

Definition: What is Sustainability in Business? 

For over four years as host of the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast, I’ve conducted over 200 interviews with businesses on this journey to sustainability. These business leaders represent organizations that are Certified B Corporations, Certified Climate Neutral, Regenerative Organic Certified, members of the 1% for the Planet business network, and more.  


From all this research, I’ve found sustainability in business exists on a broad spectrum. And, for us to take seriously the proposition of making business “sustainable,” we have to be comfortable imagining business anew. 

Otherwise, that’s like saying, let’s make cars sustainable, but they’ll still need to run with an internal combustion engine and gasoline. Everything else, though, the paint job, the interior, the rims—let’s go green! 

Sustainability in business is about redefining the core purpose of business. It’s not about considering the environmental and social implications alongside business decisions (really, as afterthoughts if we’re being serious). 

Sustainability in business is about building businesses to serve people and the planet. 

This guiding task sounds obvious in theory, but in practice, it’s not. The nuance is everything:

Sustainability in business is NOT about a “Win-Win” scenario. Sustainability in business is not about the “Shared Value Opportunity” that is doing well (making money) and doing good (being sustainable). 

I don’t mean to say that we can’t be “successful” in business while also being “sustainable” (success perhaps up for discussion). I am saying that building a profitable business cannot be on equal standing with creating a reality that’s best for as many people as possible. 

As well, when we say that being sustainable is “doing good,” at least at the moment, that means companies are attempting to offset the bad they are doing. Or, they are doing good in place of seriously remedying the bad. Even the shining example of an “environmentally friendly business,” Patagonia, recently said they were “a long, long way from realizing” their idea of being a regenerative business [a business that measurably improves the environment as a product of their operation vs. damages it].

We have to be more imaginative. Our ideas as they are (of what makes a sustainable business), have yet to get us any closer to well, doing business sustainably. 

It’s not about fitting sustainability into business or fitting sustainability into capitalism. If we are genuine about building a better future (using business as one of those mechanisms), we must have the courage to imagine something new. And, we must be open to the fact that what we imagine might make us uncomfortable. 

Remember: the world doesn’t revolve around business. We must find business’ appropriate place in the ecosystem of things, not continue to see how the ecosystem can feed business.

sustainability in business 1.0 vs 2.0 model graphic

But for the sake of definitions, let’s get to it—let’s define sustainability in business. 

Sustainable Business Definition 

To define sustainability in business, let’s start with the definition of sustainable. The Oxford Dictionary defines “sustainable” as: “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”

And so, what can be maintained (in business) depends on the context we’re living in. 

Unfortunately, the world today requires clean-up. Sustainability today isn’t really about some equilibrium. It’s about restoring and regenerating many of our degraded ecosystems and communities. This is why the term regenerative business has caught steam as well. 1

And sustainability is not just related to the environment. Sustainability must be broader to include social sustainability, too. As we’re becoming more conscious of the “intersectionality” of environmental issues, we now better know that many problems affecting the planet and issues affecting people are one and the same.2 There’s no isolating one or the other. 

And so, to our definition, a sustainable business is a business that continuously strives to leave people and the planet better off

Again, something simple in theory but very complex in practice. 

Also, there’s no difference between a sustainable, responsible, or even more niche now, a regenerative business. 

All of these are to help us build the definition of what is a good business. 

Because a good business is only a good business if people and the planet affected are taken care of. 

This definition is quite ambitious and perhaps aspirational because who among businesses fits into this definition now? Few, if any at all. However, this is our only option. 

What, anyways, is the point of business? To serve business? Or people? 

Let’s drive this further home.

📼 WATCH: Check out our multi-part series: Sustainable Business 101

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Why is Sustainability in Business Important? 

It’s not important a business adopts sustainable practices to take advantage of consumer demand, appeal to a younger workforce, or create longer-term value for their shareholders (although all those things appear to be confirmed).

Those reasons alone miss the point at a minimum and at a maximum, prioritized too heavily, undermine the change in business we’re seeking to make. 

We’re making the business case for sustainability when, rather, we should be making a bigger case for sustainability. 

The moral one. 

So why is sustainability in business important? It’s because pursuing a sustainable business model is the right thing for business leaders to do. 

If the movement for sustainable business is too heavily dependent on the business case for sustainability, what happens when the business case isn’t there? What happens when companies are still driven purely by what’s profitable instead of what’s right? 

And are we doing all we can do? Or only that which doesn’t tangibly affect business operations and growth? 

From my observations, we are already seeing the impacts of this. It’s why an analysis of the Net-Zero pledges for 24 of the world’s largest corporations would only result in a 36% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (if even executed). It’s why Amazon is giving up its “Shipment Zero” initiative to make 50% of its shipments Net-Zero by 2030. It’s why report after report shows that large corporations’ climate pledges and claims are hollow and intentionally made to mislead consumers. 

Why is all that happening? Because we aren’t changing what we value. 

If we don’t truly value sustainability (as Amazon, Walmart, etc. clearly don’t), then the perception of sustainability is as valuable as being sustainable. One requires far less work, effort, and investment of resources in change.

Why the Business Case for Sustainability Isn’t Enough

To pick on some of the most ambitious “sustainable businesses,” we’re seeing them likewise, too attached to conventional business outcomes as well.

Source: Allbirds

Take Allbirds, for example. Allbirds claims they are on a mission to “Reverse Climate Change Through Better Business.” 

In Allbirds’ 2021 Sustainability Report, which they call their “Flight Status,” Allbirds highlights, in a large majority, only their progress.

In the introduction, Allbirds reminds us,  “We have committed to cutting our per-product carbon footprint in half by the end of 2025. We’ve also committed to reducing our per-product carbon footprint to near zero by 2030.” 

They go on to share they reduced that per-product carbon footprint by 12%. And, in large part, that’s what the rest of the Sustainability Report is dedicated to, explaining how they’ve made that progress on their “per-product carbon footprint.” 

It’s annoying to say that so many times, right? But why am I annoyingly making you sound that out in your head again and again? 

Because on one page (page 23 of 24), they show us that their total carbon footprint has grown. That’s because Allbirds made and sold vastly more shoes in 2021 than they did in 2020.

Source: Allbirds’ 2021 sustainability report

4% of Allbirds’ sustainability report shows their total carbon footprint has increased. The remainder is about all the progress they are making. And, to be clear, to find this information, you need to click into a PDF report linked once on their sustainability page and read through the entirety of it (which I did) till you find this acknowledgment. 

And perhaps you’re thinking…”Hey, they told you, didn’t they? What’s the problem? The information is there, Cory!” 

On the second to last page of a PDF? Let’s all remind ourselves that we are contrasting this against Allbirds, saying their “mission is to reverse climate change through better business?” I have to find and read through a PDF where they finally acknowledge that their net impact on the environment in 2021 was negative. 

Does that seem annoying to you? 

A wildly ambitious mission must be met with a comparably courageous acknowledgment of where they stand concerning that goal. 

As for their 2022 Flight Status report? Allbirds informed us they made further progress on their per-product carbon footprint! They made a 19% reduction compared to 2021! Oh, and as for their total carbon footprint? They didn’t happen to mention it this year. 

Ben and Jerry's Double Dip book cover

Let’s take Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream as another example. 

Ben & Jerry’s has been a Certified B Corporation since 2012. Their Founders wrote a book on values-led business. It’s titled “Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip: Lead With Your Values and Make Money, Too.”

On Ben & Jerry’s Certified B Corporation directory profile, it reads:

“Ben & Jerry’s has a progressive, nonpartisan Social Mission that seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices in our local, national and international communities.”

Anyways, it was reported by the New York Times that migrant child labor is employed to “process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.” But when asked about the discovery of this child labor in their supply chain, Ben & Jerry’s head of “values-led sourcing” said something to the effect of:

“…if migrant children needed to work full time, it [is] preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.”

Well, if vulnerable migrant children need to work, it’s best they do it for a values-led business! Right? 

But wait, do we seriously think any workplace that’s exploiting migrant child labor at the same time has a “healthy work environment?”

Is that good enough?

I contacted the PR team at Ben & Jerry’s to see if anyone would be open to comment about the New York Times’ reporting. The representative referred me to a statement that said a lot of nothing instead.

Is that good enough? Is that “change-the-world-through-business” good enough? Or, is that “change-my-branding-but-don’t-touch-my-business” good enough? 

Why didn’t I get any substantive comment or discussion from Ben & Jerry’s about migrant child labor in their supply chain? Yes, it was in the New York Times, but it didn’t make much other news after that article was published. And, why would Ben & Jerry’s run the risk of making a bigger scene of things when that might affect their business interests

Sure, Ben & Jerry’s is doing and has done a lot of good. But, when the rubber hit the road, and they had the option to act with integrity and complete accountability, they decided to protect their brand. 

It’s not that companies (these last couple of examples, anyways) aren’t making an effort to change and improve circumstances. It’s that even the seemingly best examples of our most “sustainable” or “responsible” companies aren’t selective about the moments they choose to be a “force for good” (the B Corporation community’s tagline). 

I’m fearful these companies will discuss sustainability or social impact only if that discussion fits comfortably with their interests and brand reputation.

Sustainability is important because people’s lives depend on it, and the habitability of the planet depends on it. Not because our businesses depend on it. 

This is what business looks like if we value people and the planet alongside profit (e.g., a Triple Bottom Line), not if we value people and the planet above profit.

As many a business management guru will say, if everything is a priority, then nothing is. In this context, if we put our duties, responsibilities, and obligations towards sustainability (social and environmental) on the same bottom line as profit, then nothing changes. Things might look a little better, but in actuality, we defer to as it’s always been, profit above all, with a concern for people and the planet to the extent that the almighty P (profit) still reigns supreme. 

The Triple Bottom Line hasn’t changed a thing. Sure, we’re doing some new things (as examples we’ll share show), but fundamentally, we’re still doing the same thing: pursuing profit above everything else. 

For business to truly change (and there are businesses out there making this change), people and the planet must come first. Sustainability has to matter not because it’s good business, it’s because it fundamentally is what makes a business or business person good. 

Business moves from the center of the ecosystem to a part of the ecosystem, and for it, we find its appropriate role, influence, and position. This is why prioritizing sustainability in business is essential because we desperately need to balance the scales. As leaders pushing industry to be better, we must help the business community find its proper place. 

If a business can’t turn a healthy profit without exploiting people and extracting from the planet, then perhaps they can’t be in business. 

Let’s offer some examples of sustainability in business in action to help bring this all further to light. 

Examples of Sustainability in Business 

As mentioned, there might be no one indeed “sustainable business,” however many businesses have aspects of their business that help build this overarching definition. 

Building a sustainable business is about ensuring your business helps achieve the above outcomes (people and the planet better off). It’s not always clear, morally and ethically, what decision a business person should make.

As we said, what’s important is that the correct values are in the proper place. Nonetheless, here are some tangible examples of how businesses have pushed themselves further along the sustainability journey:

Accepting Accountability

MUD Jeans — Lease a Jeans Model 

MUD Jeans is a circular fashion company and Certified B Corporation, started in 2012 by Bert van Son. Mud Jeans created a “Lease a Jeans” model where customers lease their pair of Mud Jeans for a small monthly fee over 12 months (vs. upfront purchase) only to send them back when they are ready to be recycled. 

MUD Jeans’ Lease a Jeans Model | Source: MUD Jeans

Mud Jeans is attempting to highlight that they are responsible for the jeans they chose to make and sell, not you. And so, with complete accountability (and circularity) in mind, Mud Jeans has planned for the end of life for all their jeans. 

Contrast this with convention, where companies often defer responsibility to consumers. “They bought them, so they should figure out what to do with them!” More is needed for companies who are truly seeking to set and continue to raise the standards of sustainability. 

Revealing All

TS Designs — “Dirt to Shirt” Supply Chain 

TS Designs is a large-volume screen printing company based in Burlington, North Carolina. President, Eric Henry, has committed to building what he calls a “Dirt to Shirt Supply Chain.” TS Designs has built a fully transparent business model. 

Source: Where Your Clothing

As Eric explained in a conversation we had a while back, TS Designs’ supply chain is made to be 100% transparent. And, by visiting https://whereyourclothing.com/, any customer of a TS Designs printed shirt can find exactly where that shirt was made, even where the cotton for the shirt was grown.  

Putting People + Planet Above Profit

Dean’s Beans — People-Centered Development 

Dean’s Beans is a specialty coffee company committed to making positive change throughout the world’s coffee lands. But this isn’t just some charitable act. Dean’s Beans is doing this through the core of their operations as a business (the company is Certified Organic, Bird-Friendly, and Fair Trade) and through the way they deploy profits towards its People-Centered Development model. 

Dean’s Beans explains on its website, “People-Centered Development is an approach to international development that focuses on the expressed needs of local communities for the necessities of life—clean water, health care, income generation—that are often disrupted by conventional development assistance.” 

Source: Dean’s Beans

The key here is the “expressed needs of local [coffee] communities.” Resources accumulated through the success of their business are deployed to support projects within the coffee communities they work in already, at the behest of the community members themselves! 

They don’t decide what projects those communities need or determine what tools those communities need to execute them. 

Dean’s Beans has thought to scale to depth in their projects versus breadth to ensure 1) the success of their core coffee business is as equitable as can be and 2) what resources they choose to distribute are as effectively utilized as possible for the communities in question. 

You can learn more examples of sustainability in business with our two popular posts on environmentally friendly and socially responsible companies

Along with mimicking the leadership exhibited by the businesses and business leaders shared above, here are a few recommendations for how companies can be more sustainable now.

How Business Can Be More Sustainable

Here are a few ways where businesses can begin to be more sustainable: 

Be Transparent 

Sustainable businesses are transparent; they show how they do what they do, they explain why, and, before anyone else, they’ll tell you where they still need to improve. 

These businesses committing to lead will reveal all. As Eric Henry said in our conversation, “We need to have transparency of the whole supply chain of where the materials come from and the manufacturing, because to me, by transparency, you have self-regulation.” 

If your business seeks to be more sustainable, consider what you are comfortable with or not comfortable sharing publicly. And with everything, ask yourself, “why?” 

For more, read: What Real Transparency in Business Looks Like.

Accept Full Accountability

Sustainable businesses accept full accountability for their business’s impact and don’t shy away from responsibility when they make mistakes. They assume that what they produce and bring to the world is their responsibility to dispose of. 

Accountability is about being present and intimately aware of your business’ operations to ensure things are done “right,” avoid making mistakes in the first place, and take responsibility for them when they inevitably happen. 

The sustainable business knows its supply chain from start to finish and should strive never to find surprises. 

Go Local 

Sustainable business leaders build businesses in service of building resilient, thriving communities. To build communities (not companies), we build as locally as we can while always using resilience as a guide. 

Dollars go further when spent locally (B2B as well), and transparency and accountability take care of themselves with the farm right next door. 

In a future post, we’ll elaborate on each of these “practices” or principles (and others) with more examples.

Changing the Business World

In the best-selling book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas, he criticizes that much of the charity, social impact work, and buy-one give-one business models are a method of self-defense that protect the “winners” in the economic system as it is (capitalism) from making more substantive systemic change. 

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The acts of doing good and the marketing that states “we’re changing the world” is a means to assuage the feeling that those businesses, too, are participating in a culture/system of economics that has produced some grossly unfair outcomes. 

Now, I don’t believe that many of the businesses that make up these various communities and associations (B Corporations, 1% for the Planet, etc.) are seeking out means to “do good” maliciously. The intent to remedy injustices and make things better is genuine. 

What is at issue, and what makes Giridharadas’ criticism legitimate, is that as it appears now—the sustainable business movement, while gun-ho to “adjust the dials” of capitalism, isn’t open to changing radically enough. 

Making business sustainable is not about changing policies, updating a handbook, or installing the next Chief Sustainability Officer, or Chief Diversity Officer—making business more sustainable now and in the future might depend on how open we are to radically changing the rules of business overall. 

How much will we change?

In the current paradigm, it seems justified that a business isn’t as sustainable as it might otherwise be, because that business isn’t doing well enough (yet). 

Is the survival and growth of that business justified? 

Who accepts the costs of whatever “good” we aren’t doing? Or, who accepts the costs of what bad we’re doing until we have the resources to do things “right?” 

Is it you? Me? Or, is it someone (a mother, a father, heck, even a child) along the supply chain that we do not see?

Sustainability in business is about something other than business. It’s about something, or a whole lot of someones, much more important than that.

Next, to dive deeper into specifics as to what sustainability in business looks like in practice, I suggest: Sustainable Business Practices That will Make Business Better.


1 I’ve received feedback that “sustainable business” might not be appropriate for what I’m talking about when discussing these definitions. “Regenerative Business” might be the most accurate. The exact term we use doesn’t matter. In my opinion, my definition of a “sustainable business” should be “good business.” However, that needs to be more specific to engage the right readership. Likewise, but in the inverse, the term “Regenerative Business” isn’t widely recognized. I can use the word “sustainable” in front of business with whomever I’m talking to and they have some idea of what that means. Regenerative is a little too niche to be accessible. A term’s usefulness and impact are lost the more jargon-y it becomes. Thus, “sustainable” makes the most sense to me right now.

2 We have definitions for these things thanks to environmentalists like Leah Thomas, who wrote The Intersectional Environmentalist. “Intersectional environmentalism,” as Thomas describes in her book, is “environmentalism that advocates for the protection of both people and the planet,” as otherwise, arguing for sustainability without advocating for the people affected is incomplete.


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Cory Ames

Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble

I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.

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