It is widely accepted that we are reaching the limits of a resource constrained planet and will not be able to continue life as we know it for long; the world is in need of tremendous change. Sustainability is often defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need. 1
The number of organizations that have started addressing their sustainability has dramatically increased in recent years. As much as there may be lots of good progress being reported, the steps organizations have made are generally less than impressive; true sustainability remains a distant target. Interestingly, sustainability champions across organizations cite many of the same barriers holding back progress, including limited budgets, a lack of human resources, and limited leadership support.2 The reality is that sustainability appears peripheral and not strategic to what is important to organizations and, subsequently, action is not prioritized. If need for change is so imminent, why is this so?
Organizations, and the leaders who manage them, are mandated, sometimes even legally, to maximize performance. As such, it is difficult to justify allocating resources to areas that contribute little to success. The reality is that most organizations relate to sustainability as a financial burden (or, only slightly more progressively, as a limited source of savings) associated with complying with regulation or simply doing the right thing.
Of course, we might ask the questions: Is this perception accurate? Is pursuing sustainability truly a burden? Regardless of the reality, because sustainability is perceived to have little bearing on how well the organization performs, sustainability doesn’t factor in as a key priority. As long as organizations perceive sustainability to be of little importance, their investments will remain incremental, and the changes will remain, perhaps not surprisingly, painfully slow.3
Pursuing Sustainability As a Burden
1. Our Common Future offers the original definition of Sustainable Development. Find the report here: http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
2. For some case studies from the Arts and Culture sector on the lack of results and reasons see D’Art Report 34b The Arts and Environmental Sustainability: An international Overview by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies, available here: http://media.ifacca.org/files/DArt34b.pdf
3. To understand how the common understanding of Sustainable Development came about you can look into Defining Sustainable Development for Our Common Future: A History of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission). Available in print.