First, define sustainability. Then let’s talk.

I’ve borrowed the title of this post from Brian Moss, an MBA/MS student at University of Michigan, who (I’m flattered to say) saw fit to quote my definition of sustainability* in a fantastic piece on his Considering Design + Sustainability blog a couple of weeks ago.

He concludes with the following lines – the importance of which is impossible to understate and deserves further unpicking:

I guess if there is a moral here it is to always remember that the definition of sustainability is context specific, and that the first part of any conversation – with stakeholders, with consumers, with each other – should be to answer the question ‘How do WE define sustainability?’

Amen to that, and – as ever, it seems – it’s the core principle of materiality that holds the key.

Why? Because materiality is the key to demonstrating an authentic commitment to sustainability and is essentially there to be examined and judged along two critical lines:

  1. Company-based materiality – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of corporate philanthropy and cause-related marketing, organisations’ sustainability strategies should (at a minimum) be focused on addressing impacts directly related to their sphere of operations. (For example, if you’re a bank, sustainability has bugger all to do with painting schools in Africa and everything to do with responsible lending and investment!) Better yet, sustainability should be a fundamental design value underpinning business strategy and culture, such that your core products and services are geared towards creating value for the business and for society in one and the same act.
  2. Market-based materiality – i.e. that goal of creating shared value should also see sustainability/business strategy geared towards helping to solve those problems and concerns that most greatly affect society in the specific markets in which you operate. Take my Saudi mobile phone client as an example. In Saudi Arabia, where chronic health conditions like CHD and hypertension are one of society’s most pressing concerns, it’s material to consider how mobile technologies might be applied to improving access to, and effectiveness of, healthcare services.

Much to the chagrin of clients who wish you’d just reach up to the shelf labelled “Best Practice” and pull down a nice, neat cookbook solution, the upshot of all of this is that no two strategies are ever likely to be identical.

The principle of materially dictates the consideration of a combination of contextual factors that will always vary from business to business and market to market. Whilst the basic principle remains constant, its embodiment in strategy and execution are necessarily different in each case.

This is the reason why Brian’s apparently innocuous question is of such vital importance, and why the commitment to real sustainability of anyone (provider or client) who suggests otherwise should be considered highly questionable!

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* Sustainability is a perspective on brand and business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose

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