Opinion & Statements
What we mean when we speak of sustainability
by Franziska Altenrath
by Franziska Altenrath
Concern. Discomfort. Questionmarks. Disdain. Laughter. We get it. The terminology “sustainability” polarizes. Even sustainability advocates struggle to find a common definition. Why? Because it is vague. It covers a wide range of factors and even the inherent concept of “long-term” differs from case to case. What the world needs however is action. A clear roadmap. Signs and signals. Instruction and direction. We would like to give you insights into our definition of the term and explain how we apply it to sourcing and consulting in the hospitality industry.
If I think of the term and its various definitions found in global action calls, institutions, NGOs, companies and governmental publications, two different angles come into sight:
1. Sustainability as a call to maintain the living conditions of humans (and animals) by limiting the negative consequences of products, services and organizations.
2. Sustainability as a call to positively develop the conditions of humans and animals on earth within the context of a sustainable development agenda.
Take the description of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations as an example: "The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.”
Or the WBCSD: “9+ billion people living well within the boundaries of the planet.”
The discussion has moved from limiting the negative effects towards a holistic positive agenda-setting for reaching a certain idea of a good life for living beings.
What does that mean?
Sustainability used to be about making things less bad. But less bad is no longer sufficient. What we need is good - and compensation where bad practice cannot be avoided. Sustainability today reaches out into vision and mission statements and ultimately strategic planning. It is becoming vital for risk management practice and product design activities. The days of limiting sustainability commitments to traditional CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities as part of the marketing operations are over. Ultimately the vagueness of the term sustainability becomes its biggest strength: Instead of ticking the boxes of external audits, it allows companies to leverage their very own profile, knowledge, expertise and skills to contribute to a global sustainable development in a meaningful and effective way. They might use their brand recognition to raise consumer awareness. They might conduct research on resource efficiency. They might use their location to empower local communities or engage in ecological power projects such as deforestation or wildlife protection areas. They might build on their expertise in digitalization to provide climate neutral logistic solutions.
It is when skill and creativity face ecological boundaries but societal willingness where potentials for change are being unleashed.
There needs to be a certain degree of standardization in sustainability efforts. Resource efficiency, greenhouse gas reduction and compensation, workers safety, living wages and other factors are universal and must be included in every business (sustainability) agenda. Standardization enables comparison and management. But in order to utilize the creative and productive forces of markets and economic competition for a global sustainable development we need to build on a variety of best practice and pioneering.
We - TUTAKA - do embrace this challenge and contribute our vision of good hospitality, of good procurement and good communications, building on human potential and ecological constraints. A good hospitality business caters to the health and wellbeing of guests, employees and the local population. It creates a sense of community and belonging between stakeholders. It enables meaningful materialistic and non-materialistic experiences. It preserves and protects the nature around, respects and promotes bio-diversity. It puts resource efficiency at the centre and utilizes sustainability as an innovation tool to permanently optimize material input and processes. Capacities for sustainability have been created. A good hospitality business focuses on value creation for guests, employees, local communities and shareholders. They create both a financial and a non-financial value definition and thus adapt a long-term perspective.
A good procurement strategy relies on different criteria depending on material input and geography. This will be looked upon in Part 2 of this article series. Working across product categories and national borders we do emphasize the importance of transparency. There is no good procurement without taking responsibility and asking questions. Plenty of questions. Maybe visiting. Meeting suppliers in person. Assessments of different suppliers must contain further criteria than just costs: living wages, working conditions, social security, purchasing policy, resource efficiency, waste disposal, etc.
Good communication is cliché- and greenwashing-free and consists of multiple layers. Businesses need to create trust, create emotional connections and differentiation. They need to explain their raison d’être. Part III of this series will deal with this pillar.
Yes, sustainability is a vague term. But vagueness is needed. Because discussion, best-practice and pioneer work is needed. If sustainability is about visions of a good life for living beings today and in the future, we need to be in deep conversation about what a good life is and how it is best achieved. Great answers have been found already. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals serve as orientation and guidance throughout the journey of making businesses, products and services serving humans and their condition on earth again.
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