A business sustains its operations by making money. Revenues must be greater than expenses, and a successful business is able to repeat this year over year. To do so, they must manage risks to both sustain and grow revenue while controlling and lowering expenses. Businesses manage revenue-side risks by erecting competitive barriers to entry, investing in marketing and training a sales force. They manage expense-side risks by creating rules around fiscal discipline, developing risk-management policies and buying business continuity insurance.
An ecosystem sustains itself with a constant influx of resources. Moss needs moist soil and fallen biomass to grow, herbivores need a steady supply of fauna to forage and omnivores need a large supply of prey for the hunt. Large ecosystems have also learned to manage the risks of natural disasters and biology has developed innovative means to ensure resiliency. Wildfires in redwood forests clear out low-level brush, removing resource competition for the more mature trees. Monarch butterflies poison the birds that eat them, protecting themselves from harm. Fish swim in schools to confuse their prey.
A sustainable business is therefore the logical merger of these two concepts. It is a business that makes money while giving back to the environment more than it takes away. This might seem strange but the concept is, in fact, many hundreds of years old. The medieval colleges of Oxford and Cambridge built their buildings out of stone and trimmed the inside of the rooms with wood. The architects immediately realized they faced a sustainability risk. The stone walls would last for many centuries but wood trims had a lifespan of a mere 150 years. To solve this issue, the colleges bought land and planted forests. By the time the trees matured, the wood within the colleges would be in need of replacing and new trees would be planted, continuing the cycle.
Some of the challenges we face today exist because the risks faced by the environment do not match the deliverable-driven risks of the business world. After all, the environment works on a generational timescale while business care about hitting next quarter’s targets. But if businesses planned for longer cycles, they would be better matched to environmental needs as well. There are several century-old companies that plan many decades into the future, and it is no surprise that each of their plans calls for planting trees today. Perhaps if all businesses operated on a 50-year plan, they’d all be planting trees too.