Everyone is talking about ‘Sustainability’ these days. Once they were talking about ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and then ‘Corporate Responsibility’ became the talk of the town, presumably because the ‘Social’ part didn’t like all the attention and ran away. Now ‘Sustainability’ has rolled up in a flash new jumper and stolen the show. But where did all this talk come from and what difference does it make if we allow the notion of ‘sustainability’ to barge into our work places?

Some say the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (or CSR) emerged in the 1980’s in response to a growing number of corporate scandals involving things like child labour and sweatshops. CSR was seen as the good guy who turned up to reassure us all that everything was okay whilst keeping a tight lid on the jack-in-a-box of other scandals waiting to jump out and startle us all. In short CSR was arguably a way of minimising the risk to a brand’s reputation. It was the friendly face that greeted us at the entrance to the party and shielded us from the naughty youths at the back of the room.

Fast forward to the early noughties and everyone wants a piece of ‘Sustainability’. Retailers, manufacturers, brands, even celebrity chefs are banging on about it and waving it in our faces as if there were no tomorrow. But what on earth did we do before CSR, CR and Sustainability were making shapes on the dance floor? Were we happily throwing stuff away, beating people up and destroying things without a care in the world? Well many would argue we were, and still are, but the point is that for those organisations who were making an attempt to behave responsibly there was no funky guy in a beard wearing a trendy CSR hat to keep us all in check and provide motivation; so why do it? Well it may be because those organisations that acted responsibly did so because they were guided by certain values about doing the right thing, not because they were following the latest trend or responding to consumer demand. Joseph Rowntree for example was driven by improving the quality of life for his employees, while John Spedan Lewis defined the purpose of the John Lewis Partnership as “the happiness of its partners”.

So what other examples are there? I can’t think of many. Some may point to the “Social Enterprise” as an example of a business with sustainability principles engrained within its mission, but I would argue that there is confusion over what a social enterprise actually is, especially when many such organisations seem more focused on achieving a social goal rather than advancing the commercial arm of the business.

What about companies which embed a responsible approach in order to achieve a commercial goal? Are they social enterprises, or are they something else? If they are anything like Blue Skies, I would suggest they are ‘Joint Effort Enterprises’. Blue Skies Founder Anthony Pile, a British Entrepreneur, established the ‘Joint Effort Enterprise’ to enable him to motivate a small, relatively inexperienced and unskilled group of people to start a business in Ghana against all the odds, and get support from the local community without raising suspicions of neo-colonialism. The principles of the JEE – diversity, social equality and profitability – were designed to motivate and encourage people, to enable individuals to reach their potential and create an environment conducive to solving problems and coming up with ideas. The ‘culture’ element of the JEE – part of the principle of social equality – is intended to look after the interests of people, but also to take care of the environment, recognising that it’s the natural environment which provides the resources the business needs now and in the future to survive. The JEE therefore isn’t about reputation nor identity; it is about necessity and providing for the future.

So what place does sustainability have within the JEE? Is wearing the CSR hat really going to make a difference? No, it has to be more deeply embedded to the extent that no one notices, or even talks about it. It has to be in the DNA. Sustainability shouldn’t be about sustainability anymore, it should be about business as usual.

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