Sustaining Relevance - A blog by Kathrin Winkler

Kathrin ("Kate") Winkler is Sr. Director and Chief Sustainability Officer at EMC Corporation, and writes exclusively for her blog, Interconnected World.
Oct 29, 2009 9:50 AM ET

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The juxtaposition of several events last week had me dwelling on that most current of challenges - how to define what "sustainability" means to people in a corporate enterprise. 

If you've ever attended a talk, panel session, or conference on the subject of "sustainability", you know that sometime within the first hour, someone will provide a definition of the word.  They'll usually start with the famous Brundtland definition "Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs".  People who haven't heard that definition usually find it pretty compelling, underscoring sustainability as a moral imperative. But it's not always obvious what that means to a company. Some also find it too pessimistic, focusing on not doing harm rather than making the world a better place.  I think of this as the "abstract imperative story". It's about why the global community has to do it.

For the more hardcore business folks, I've been inclined to use language from Dow Jones that is getting more popular - "mitigating risks and leveraging opportunities presented by economic, social and environmental developments".  Business people certainly relate to mitigating risks and leveraging opportunities.  The presentations at the Women's Network for a Sustainable Future last Tuesday, as well as those at the GreenTech & Sustainability conference at the UN on Wednesday, highlighted the evolution that corporate sustainability has made from "good for the future" to "good for the bottom line" to "good for the top line".  I think of this as the "concrete desirable story".  It's why we as a business want to do it.

What I want is to tell the "concrete imperative story" - why we as a business have to do it. And the word that popped into my mind (and, alas, out of my mouth as I was on a panel at the time) was "relevance".

EMC is 30 years old this year.  While I hate to admit it so publicly, I was in the workforce when it was founded. The DJSI was under 1000. Exxon's revenues were $80B . There were 4.45B people on earth, 350M cars on the road, 11M cell phones. 15% of the earth's surface was in extreme dry conditions. 5.25" disk drives were just being introduced at 5 and 10MB.

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