Defining Sustainability

In the convenience retail sector, as in many other parts of the broader business community, sustainability has many different meanings.

For many business owners, a sustainable business means one that generates enough revenue to offer competitive employee wages and pay suppliers, creditors and investors while also having resources to invest in the future of the business.

Increasingly, however, business owners are recognizing that their customers, investors and competitors are embracing a broader definition of sustainability that expands beyond the business to include a focus on local communities, the global community and the health of the planet.

Rather than focusing solely on profitability (the bottom line) as a success measurement, businesses are also focusing on the triple bottom line, which considers both the positive and negative impacts of business decisions along three dimensions: people, planet and prosperity. 

  • People: Measures the impact of business decisions on people, including employees, families, customers, suppliers, investors, communities and other stakeholders. It addresses things like providing fair wages, securing access to health care, making a positive difference at work and ensuring safe working environments.
  • Planet: Focuses on environmental indicators like reducing air and water pollution, use of toxic or hazardous materials, use of natural resources (plants and minerals), carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other contributions to global warming.
  • Prosperity: Examines profits for the business along with the business’s benefits to the local, national and global economy. It includes creating jobs, paying taxes, donations of time and resources for local communities and other economic impacts. 

The Triple Bottom Line

The triple bottom line perspective emerged as large, global companies recognized that every business decision they make has financial implications along with human health, environmental and social impacts.

A global coffee retailer, for example, given the enormous volumes of coffee beans that it purchases, has significant influence over how and where the coffee is grown. Its business decisions affect things like whether rainforest land is cleared to grow coffee, how much and what kinds of pesticides and fertilizers are used, and the working conditions on the farms. The same is true for large retailers of beef, poultry, pork, dairy, fish, cocoa, tobacco, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products.

Environmental advocates and some consumers expect that retailers have similar influence over product packaging for things like candy, snacks, beverages and packaged food that affects how easy it is for customers to recycle the discarded packaging either at the store or at home.

Walmart, for example, previously estimated that 92% of its sustainability impacts were driven by the decisions of its suppliers, but Walmart customers hold the retailer responsible for the impacts of its suppliers. As a result, the retailer works with its suppliers to reduce adverse impacts and identify profitable ways to increase beneficial impacts.

As large retailers and companies embrace business strategies that generate triple bottom line benefits, customers, employees, investors, regulators and other stakeholders are expecting all businesses to focus on these issues.

Luckily, as executives begin examining their businesses from sustainability’s triple bottom line perspective, they frequently discover cost-savings and opportunities to grow sales.