Business is Where We Really Need to Be Talking About Sustainability

Sustainability is a big fat buzzword. It gets trotted out anytime someone wants to appear to care for the environment and it’s meaning is becoming diluted.

We’ve added a sense that ‘sustainability’ has to mean we’re talking about the environment. But the word really has much broader roots than that. Sustainability is a question of building something that can repeat and continue, especially in a situation when limited resources are available. That can mean talking about energy efficiency and the like, but it can just as easily be a question of practicing stewardship with our own time or creativity. A business that requires you to put in hundred hour work weeks is just as unsustainable as the current worldwide levels of oil usage.

Getting the Talk About Sustainability Right

While I tend to be contrary when it comes to environmental issues (at the very least, I think our approach to recycling paper is dangerous), I do think it’s incredibly important to talk about sustainability as a part of entrepreneurship. Where I diverge from other people is the idea that the environment is the only resource we need to protect.

So, let’s get the environmental stuff out of the way first: it’s short-sighted to set up a business in such a way that you’re not going to have the resources you need down the road. Choosing ways to reduce the amount of energy your business needs, along with other natural resources, is simply good business. If nothing else, making a resource scarce makes it more expensive for your business to grow in the future. Assuming that you actually want a long-term business, rather than a quick buck, careful management of resources is a must.

The local ecosystem, by the way, falls into that category. I’ve never really understood companies that make choices that lead to contaminated water tables and similar problems: leaving ethics and morality entirely out of the matter, it always makes for one heck of a human resources problem. Sick employees are expensive employees and employees with low morale can do all sorts of harm to the bottom line. It really is cheaper to run a business with an eye to environmental impact in the first place. The only exception is if you plan to be out of business relatively quickly and want to make the absolute most money in the shortest amount of time — that’s still bad business, though, given that the earning potential of a well-run company can extend decades.

Less Obvious Sustainability

In addition to the warm, fuzzy, environmentally-friendly sustainability discussed above, we need to talk about the other resources that need some stewardship.

Human resources are a key component of more advanced sustainability concerns, both in terms of yourself as an entrepreneur and in terms of the people that you work with. As a business owner, I’ve witnessed first hand (and committed) some incredibly stupid moves involving allocating human resources. It’s very tempting, especially when you’re bootstrapping, to tell yourself that sleep is unnecessary for a couple of weeks at a stretch. We do stupid things in terms of our health — particularly concerning, given that many entrepreneurs don’t prioritize health insurance. I’d like to say that’s just the price of admission and that if the business is a good one, things will even out eventually.

But the truth is that it’s not that hard to burn an entrepreneur out. Even successful business owners will close shop and take jobs if they use up their own stamina. I’m not telling you that an entrepreneur should limit herself to a forty-hour work week or anything like that, but we do need to think about sustainability. We need to keep at least some time on the schedule for rest, to make sure we’re healthy and all of that. Depending on your speciality, creative burnout may be a concern, as well — you may need to budget in down time from creative work, at the very least.

We have to think about how hard we push people we work with, too. I keep reading horror stories about Silicon Valley startups that expect coders to sleep at their desks. Let’s be honest: who actually does decent work on a fifteen minute nap caught under a desk? Those companies will have to have that code rewritten at some point, driving up costs. Once again, I have no problem with hard schedules and expecting people to put in the hours, but if you’re working on a timeline that requires every person in the company to work twenty hours a day for the next couple of weeks, you’re simply not going to meet the deadline you’ve set with any kind of quality product.

Playing Buzzword Bingo with Sustainability

Right now, the word ‘sustainability’ is a hot buzzword. If I had another clear term to talk about similar issues that wouldn’t get me funny looks during conversations, I would use it. I don’t, though, and the underlying concept is crucial to business.

Even if the only consideration you give to sustainability is to sit down with your business plan and check that you have the necessary resources — including hours in the day — to succeed for the next year, you’re going to come out ahead. I hope that you go beyond that point: it’s worth considering not just what you need to run your business, but also how available those resources will be in the future. Even if you’re just thinking about how many hours you can really work, day in and day out, you’ll wind up with a business that is easier to sustain in the long term.

Image by XKCD creator Randall Munroe


  1. Caroline Leopold   •  

    Sustainability is a major buzzword in grant writing. Most foundation proposals require a section on sustainability. In simple English, the foundations are asking non-profits to find ways to not live off their well endowed teats forever. But they make a good point. Having a diverse resource strategy ensures that nobody’s freelance business tanks at the loss of one whale client. But that’s easier said than done.

    • thursday   •     Author

      Good point, Caroline. And yes, it absolutely is harder to build a sustainable business than just to talk about it. But when has anything worth doing really been all that easy?

  2. Layla   •  

    WOW. Really COOL post!!

    I’m glad someone is talking about these things from the ‘simply biz’ aspect!

    Btw, what problem/s do you have with recycled paper? I know some papers are really dirty to recycle (some more than others) any other issues with those?

    • thursday   •     Author

      A lot of recycling processes for paper create chemical waste that is heavy in chlorine and other chemicals that are difficult to dispose of properly. That’s my biggest issue.

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