What does sustainability mean?

Depends whom you ask. (Debates about it can get warm.) But at root it’s the idea that systems—including natural and human ones—need to be regenerative and balanced in order to last. We believe that that means all kinds of systems: economic, environmental, societal, and personal. The sustainability question is: How can we design and build a world in which the Earth thrives and people can pursue flourishing lives?

Are there other definitions?

Yes—too many to count. Some focus on environmental impact alone, or emphasize the idea of the triple bottom line (measuring performance of organizations or communities on separate economic, environmental, and social dimensions). One of the best known general definitions emerged from a 1987 United Nations report about sustainable development, which was described as development “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Increasingly, attempts at definition are recognizing that the needs of natural, economic, and social systems are so interdependent that have to be considered in an integrated way.

Why “The Sustainability Initiative?”

However sustainability is defined, one thing is true: the vital need for human society to address its challenges will end up transforming the ways we all work, live, and compete. It will have extraordinary implications for organizations and the people who lead them—work processes, organizational models, competitive strategies, and leadership methods are all going to be affected. But how? And why? And in what ways? That’s what we explore.

Who is this site for?

Leaders, managers, executives, and business practitioners of every kind. Also: anyone interested in understanding how sustainability will change management and our individual economic lives.

How can it help me?

Several ways, for starters. 1) It will help you understand better the forces that your organization (and every organization) will be affected by as sustainability problems of all sorts make their consequences felt—and as the attempts to solve those problems bring consequences of their own. 2) It will help you navigate through the more and more overwhelming mass of information about sustainability—filtering for you the information that will matter most to managers. 3) By offering the best insights of thought leaders, researchers, and practitioners, it will help you fend off threats and capitalize on opportunities that sustainability presents.

Do you mean that it’s about “going green?”

Definitely not (though we will help you learn something about that, too). We think that sustainability as a business issue will be core to every organization’s strategy agenda. It will transform management and strategy in ways that might appear to have little to do with sustainability in its “going green” sense. We’ll move beyond mainstream thinking to explore this frontier and its implications to the management practitioner and executive.

What does The Sustainability Initiative seek to accomplish?

Our first objective is to identify the sustainability challenges that will have the greatest effect on managerial decision making, and determine which challenges pose the biggest threats and opportunities. To that end, our collaboration will conduct interviews and research, and publish findings, insights, advice, case experiences, and resources for further learning. Our long term vision is to become home to the world’s preeminent exploration of—and conversation about—the new sustainability-driven possibilities for managers.

Go to the Sustainability & Innovation homepage for MIT Sloan Management Review‘s most recent articles and blog posts about The Sustainability Initiative.