Defining sustainability

The terms “sustainability” and “sustainable”, although widespread and commonly used these days by politics, business, media and in daily conversation do not have a single clear definition — they “mean different things to different people” (White, 2013). The World Commission on Environment and

Development published a first attempt of a precise definition in their report, Our Common Future (1987) (also called the “Brundtland Report”):

“In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

(WCED, 1987)

Yet, terms like “resources”, “harmony” or “needs” are vague and can differ greatly in meaning, depending on context or audience and are not measurable for economic applications. Extensive work has since been done regarding the conception of sustainability, e.g. the differentiation in “strong sustainability” focusing on ecological aspects, and “weak sustainability” focusing on human well-being (cf. Jamieson, 1998). A commonly accepted way of defining sustainability in a business context is through the so-called Triple Bottom Line, coined by John Elkington. Earlier, the author had already described a “win-win-win situation” for companies, their customers and the environment (Elkington, 1994), also often formulated as 3P — “people, planet, profits”, putting a company’s pursuit of profit in the last place.

To pursue a common goal of acting sustainably, e.g. in a startup team, it might not be necessary (or possible) to construct one apt sentence to define the term, but the important factor for a business to succeed is a shared set of values (DeMol, 2019). Terms linked to sustainability, visualized in word tag clouds, can be useful to achieve a shared vision, approaching the sustainability discourse as a case of “I know it when I see it” (White, 2013). Theory and practice of sustainability are subject to constant change: Competition in markets, societal values, a growing global demand for transparency, life-cycle technologies, corporate partnerships, etc. (Elkington, 2013). Therefore, the whole discourse remains active and cannot be put to an end once and for all. In all startup teams examined in the context of this chapter, a common vision is pursued, leading to success (DeMol, 2019), but individual ideas of and reflections on sustainability can coexist, as an open discourse is encouraged within each company.

Sustainability and economics

The Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, or “Lebensministerium” — “Ministry of Life” (since January 2020: Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism), published a dossier in 2012, dealing with alternative concepts for economy and society (Zukunftsdossier alternative Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftskonzepte. BMLFUW 2012) as part of the ongoing project Growth in Transition. This paper gives an overview of well researched ideas for alternatives to the present economic systems, among others the Steady State Economy, describing a globally sustainable economic development on a physically acceptable level (Daly, 1973) or Post-Growth Economy (theorizing an economy without growth within the natural boundaries of our planet’s finite resources (Jackson, 2009; Paech, 2012). Creating “shared value” - economic value that also creates value for society (Porter & Kramer, 2011) — is the central principle of the so-called Economy for the Common Good. Austrian author Christian Felber took a pioneering role in designing a more humane, social, ecologic and democratic economic system. Economy for the Common Good is a holistic approach “thinking together” economics, ethics based on Christian social doctrine, democracy, gender and ecology (Felber, 2016).

Benefitting the common good is in fact inherent to the word “economics”, stemming from Greek “oikonomia” (the art of housekeeping — money as means to an end), as described by Aristotle, in contrast to “chrematis- tike” (the art of acquiring money) (Aristotle, Pol., 1258 b 34—35). Today’s approaches to the basics of business modelling, taking as popular example the Business Model Canvas by Osterwalder and Pigneur (2010), can be viewed as inherently chrematistic in Aristotle’s words, treating the creation of value for the common good as something additional and rather new (“shared value”). Change towards sustainable business models is about the implementation of alternative paradigms other than the neoclassical economic worldview on the organizational level — the culture, structure and routines within a company, shaping the way of doing business towards sustainable development (Boons & Liideke-Freund, 2013). Economy for the Common Good is a process in which every private person, small or big business, organization or community can participate (Felber, 2016). Its significance lies in the commitment to a set of principles rather than the membership in an association. The case companies in part 3 pursue value creation for the common good through innovative approaches to sustainability instead of it being but an added value (De Chernatony, Harris, & Dall’Olmo Riley, 2000).

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