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Sustainable Business: Are we heading in the right direction?
1  University of South Australia

Published: 01 November 2011 by MDPI in The 1st World Sustainability Forum session Governance & Sustainability
Abstract: Sustainable development (SustD) – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – has become a major issue of focus for business, government, and society generally, at local, national, and international levels. Evidence abounds of the increasing extent to which the business sector is embracing the SustD concept – the UN Global Compact (, the work of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (, the Equator Principles for the banking sector (, and the increasing uptake of sustainability reporting ( are just a few examples. But the current mainstream SustD narrative, as it is formulated in business and political circles, is only one approach to how humanity might go about living sustainably. But is it the one most likely to see a sustainable world come about? Are we really heading in the right direction? This paper critiques the current dominant SustD approach using socio-ecological resilience theory, and the Ecological Footprint measure in conjunction with the I=PAT identity. It considers current and future Ecological Footprint trends, and how key SustD strategies directed towards human population numbers, economic growth, and technology solutions, interact to progress or retard the achievement of a sustainable world. Socio-ecological resilience theory is used to explore the extent to which mainstream SustD either builds resilient societies and ecosystems, or undermines resilience leaving society vulnerable to broad-scale social and ecosystem collapse. The paper argues that mainstream SustD is challenging to believe as credible. Rather than helping society achieve needed change, this approach instead creates a false sense of progress that acts as a barrier to the more decisive action that is necessary to address the underlying drivers of humanity\'s unsustainable behaviours. Further, some of the core technology strategies advocated by this approach, and on which the business sector focuses its sustainability efforts, are shown to have flow-on effects that can work against the very objectives they seek to achieve. The paper concludes that the business sector has the power and influence to drive needed change, and can do so by embracing a more transformational sustainable world approach in both its internal activities and in its advocacy in the broader public and political space. Although focusing on the business sector, the findings of this critique are equally relevant to other social actors in their pursuit of sustainable world outcomes including governments, religious organisations, educational institutions, NGOs, communities, and individuals. What is needed is for business, political, and community leaders to take a stand and rally together to drive needed change.
Keywords: Sustainable development; Sustainable business; Ecological footprint; Resilience; Transformational change.
Comments on this paper
Yvan Dutil
An important reflexion.
I like very much your paper. You come to a similar conclusion as I did many years ago but with a much deeper analysis. For me, sustainability is probably one of the toughest intellectual challenge that can exist.
Don Clifton
Thanks for the feedback Yvan.

This is a challenging area and one where I feel the debate is too constrained within the dominant sustainable development paradigm. How to shift out of this narrow thinking and see alternate (and transformational) narratives legitimised in the public space is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face.

Rokas Grunda
Defining sustainable society and sustainable business

I read your paper with great interest but I did not find one thing – a clear definition of sustainable business. As I have noticed, there are many papers written about business sustainability not clearly defining it, and this is a problem from my point of view, when we don’t know whether your definition of sustainable business is the same as mine. Or a sustainable society.

Do you have a set of criteria, according to which you define sustainable business and sustainable society? The clear criteria would be helpful for business management as the criteria would show what goals the business should set to become sustainable. O maybe you use some kind of concept of other theoretical framework, that clearly defines sustainable business and sustainable society?

Don Clifton
Defining sustainable business and sustainability
Hi Rokas. Thanks for the feedback.
In the article, I talk of what a sustainable buisness is (this draws on the work of Dunphy et al). The problem is though that what it means for there to be a sustainable world is a disputed issue and there isn't really a way of giving a single definition of sustainability that can deal with this disputed and pluralistic naturre of the concept. I have written an article that walks through tihs: here is the reference and link: Clifton, D 2010, 'Representing a Sustainable World - A Typology Approach', Journal of Sustainable Development, vol. 3, no. 2, June 2010, pp. 40-57.: . Regards, Don

Rokas Grunda
Hello Don, it is nice to see an active discussion. And thanks for the article link, I'll read it.

In my research I have found a similar problem with most of the authors stating, that the concept of sustainable development is "disputed and pluralistic". It is true in 99% of the papers, I would say. But there are authors, very few, but there are, that define sustainable society, or in your words sustainable world, in exact, strict and clear criteria, that should be met in order to reach sustainability.

Among these few I like The Natural Step and its founder's Robert's 4 criteria of a sustainable society, and they are also applied to business in order for it to be sustainable. I also like the procedure through which the criteria were agreed on through numerous reviews of several tens of scientists of various fields.

I also use these sustainable society criteria in my papers when defining a sustainable society, as in the literature I have not found any critique or shortcomings noted by any sustainability scientists. It seems there Natural Step criteria are "bulletproof".

In my paper I try to add the technological criteria as the fifth, and propose the sustainability criteria for a political and economic systems, when they are also distinguished. But they are more for a discussion and are not so widely discussed, as The Natural Step criteria.

It would be interesting to hear from you what you think about the 4 TNS criteria, would you find any additional ones, and what you think of the additional criteria I have proposed in my paper presented in this conference. Maybe we could have an active discussion about the sustainability criteria, because I find it one of the most important questions in the field, as when we agree on clear criteria, we can use them as goals, and if we cannot agree on the clear sustainability criteria, we all tall different things and recommend different things.

I think that we, as sustainability scientists, should strive at least to try to make sustainability a more clear concepts, and clear criteria would do that, and not make the concept increasingly complicated simply stating, that the concept is vague and there are no clear criteria to distinguish a sustainable world from an unsustainable world.

I would appreciate your opinion.