Sustainability as a Business Strategy

Nancy Landrum Commentary

Sustainability as a Business Strategy
Nancy Landrum

Sustainability is more than just being green.

Focusing on a sustainable business means thinking about your business’ impact on employees, the community, the economy, the supply chain and all those affected by your daily operations. It requires integrity and transparency in all business decisions and operations.

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Sustainability in business is, at its core, about returning to old-fashioned business values: knowing your customers and neighbors, frugality and efficiency, doing the right thing and being accountable for your actions.

In other words, sustainability is a long-term orientation focused on long-term survival. To describe sustainability, we often refer to the triple bottom line of a business: social, environmental and economic performance, also referred to as people, planet and profit.

Businesses practicing sustainability are often able to improve their image and reputation, reduce costs, increase profits and help bolster the local economy. A sustainable business will seek to have positive impacts on social, environmental and economic systems.

For example, since announcing sustainability goals in 2007, Wal-Mart has reduced plastic bag use by more than 38 percent globally, achieved an almost 81 percent reduction in landfill waste from U.S. stores, improved energy efficiency by 20 percent in supplier factories, reduced packaging by 5 percent globally and achieved an 80 percent improvement in U.S. fleet efficiency.

In addition, the company reduced the price premium for healthier foods from 5.7 percent to 5.4 percent and awarded $180 million in hunger relief grants, $26 million in healthy nutrition grants and $3.35 million in grants to help U.S. women from low-income households gain job-readiness skills.

Sustainability is also underpinned by the principles of transparency and integrity, or a focus on doing the right thing, even when it is not required.

Most businesses and organizations start pursuing sustainability by working to become more environmentally friendly.

Heifer International, based in Little Rock, is the embodiment of sustainability. From the organization’s social impact mission to eradicate global hunger and poverty to its green building, it is the role model businesses can look to when considering a sustainability makeover.

The organization has helped more than 20 million people in more than 40 countries by bringing sustainable agriculture and commerce to areas affected by poverty. People are taught sustainable agriculture skills to provide for their families. The goal is to teach self-reliance and improve social and economic conditions.

In addition, Heifer’s global headquarters is one of the greenest buildings in the country, having achieved the highest rating of energy efficiency and sustainable design. The building site was a former industrial waste site that was cleaned up and restored. The building was constructed primarily with local materials from within a 500-mile radius, reducing transportation costs while supporting local economies.

The building design is curved to make the most efficient use of daylight, reducing the need for artificial light and conserving electricity. The building collects and stores rainwater in a 3,000-gallon tower for non-consumable use, such as flushing toilets and use in the cooling tower. Water is also conserved through the use of waterless urinals and through native landscaping that requires no irrigation.

Sustainability initiatives, however, don’t always require a big investment. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a student project examined paper and toner use for one college on campus. The study concluded with sustainability-focused recommendations that could save the college 39 to 43 percent in paper and toner costs.

The UALR Sustainability Committee, a volunteer group of faculty, staff and students, recently installed two water bottle refilling stations on campus and launched a campaign encouraging the use of refillable water bottles. Through these initiatives, UALR has diverted more than 6,000 plastic bottles from landfills.

By adopting sustainability as part of your company-wide strategy, you can distinguish your company from competitors and gain a long-term competitive advantage. Remember, sustainability is about being a good citizen in terms of people, planet, profits and principles.

Nancy Landrum is an associate professor in the Department of Management at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock College of Business. Email her at