We All Need To Be Advocates For
A Universal Sustainability
Practice Language

Paul Poirier

January 8, 2020
5 min read

What does sustainability mean? What is the process of sustainability? Ask 10 people  these two questions and you get the same answers, right?

Sustainability has become a meaningless cliché for many business leaders and so called experts on the subject. Avoiding use of the term is proposed by Josh Kearns in his article “Let’s stop using the word “sustainability” and while Mr. Kearns highlights many challenges that should concern all of us, I believe he is misguided when he suggested use of the word “sustainability” is part of the problem. I will come back to this point.

Imagine a world without your cell phone, your computer, the Internet, or the ability to build most things. That’s a world without mathematics. Every scientific advancement had mathematics at its core. While there is no universal language that we can employ to talk to one another, to understand each other, there is a universal quantification language: mathematics. Would anyone really suggest that we stop using the word “mathematics” because we don’t all define it the same way?

The study of mathematics as a demonstrative discipline began in the 6th century BC. It has a very long history of study and practice. The idea of sustainability stems from the concept of sustainable development which became common language at the world’s first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The original definition is usually considered to be: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The study and practice of sustainability is in its infancy. The question we need to answer regarding sustainability should be: What must we do to develop a “Universal Sustainability Practice Language” that delivers the same profound impact mathematics has?

The Practice of Sustainability must be easily understood, like the practice of addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication. Barring the misfortune of having a learning disability, most children are able to grasp these simple mathematical practices. As adults, we maintain the understanding of these practices and continue to use them in our daily lives. Are there examples, today, of highly successful organizations who practice a universal sustainability language? Yes, and as of September 2019 they were valued at $211 billion, by far the most valuable auto company in the world – Toyota. While they call their system the Toyota Production System, and other practitioners adopted the term Lean Manufacturing, at the core of their success are the following two practices:

1. Waste elimination
2. Waste prevention

I was fortunate to visit the Toyota plant in Cambridge, ON Canada, a few years ago with a client. During that visit, one of the Toyota leaders shared with us that their employees – 4000 at this facility – submit an average of 10,000 waste elimination or prevention ideas a year. Imagine this from an organization that is already extremely efficient. It is easily understandable why the original big three found it difficult to compete with this kind of culture. Today General Motors, with a value of $52 billion – 25% that of Toyota’s, is the car manufacturer closest in value to Toyota.

There are many advocates confirming the importance of sustainability and the two practices of waste elimination and prevention. One I highly recommend reading is Jonathan T. Scott and his practitioner’s guide, “The Sustainable Business.” Mr. Scott focuses on sustainability from a cost/profit perspective, something that is obviously critical to operating a sustainable business.

With a clear understanding of what the two practices of sustainability are, waste elimination and waste prevention, we have a need for universal sustainability goals. Fortunately they were developed and can be viewed in the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They describe these goals as a shared blueprint for a more prosperous and sustainable world – I most certainly concur. I recommend taking a few minutes to read “Do you speak the universal language of the Sustainable Development Goals?”, written by Samantha Todd – it is well worth the 5 minute read. Her comments, “There has been a significant shift in the investment world, with increasing value being placed on social impact alongside financial returns” highlight the importance of business leaders being well aware of SDGs: Ms Todd also provides powerful reasons for business leaders to integrate SDGs into their company’s business strategy.

There is one final piece of the puzzle missing – the definition of waste. As we know, when asked, people are challenged to define what mathematics and sustainability mean. The same is currently the reality when people are asked to define waste, no consistent answer. This reality must be unacceptable to all of us who are passionate about operating sustainable businesses and creating a more sustainable world.

I believe the simplest answer can be found in making the connection between waste and energy. The delivery of all services and products consume energy – be it in the form of human or natural resources. Therefore, waste is excess energy consumption. Go ahead, test this definition out at home or at work. Try to find some form of action taken during your day that doesn’t consume energy. I am confident that every action, will require some form of input – energy. Therefore if we can break everything down in terms of its level of energy consumption, we can determine if we are creating waste.

If you are an employee, I recommend that you create a vision and road map for making waste elimination and prevention an integral part of your career and personal life. Use the practices of sustainability to inspire the people in your life to continuously improve. Adopt sustainability practices as personal responsibility and I am confident that your life will be far more meaningful.

Champion athletes and teams practice the basics repeatedly. Our team believes passionately that you are what you repeatedly do. If you are a business owner or leader not currently using a universal sustainability practice language, then it is likely that your team is not doing what should be a mandatory part of their daily job – identifying waste for the purpose of elimination and prevention. Seize the opportunity to inspire, engage, and innovate with your team. Improved performance will follow.

Paul Poirier – Sustainability Services Director with ABATE. Paul has an incredible passion and talent for banishing waste, engaging people, and creating innovative solutions. Paul can be contacted via email:


We all need to be advocates for a universal sustainability practice language

By: Paul Poirier

5 Min Read

Industry 4.0

The Internet of Things (IoT) provides significant performance improvement opportunities

By: Paul Poirier

5 Min Read

Energy Management

Are we missing a major opportunity to demonstrate the power of energy management?

By: Paul Poirier

3 Min Read

Ready to successfully engage and innovate?

Let’s start with a discussion about potential performance improvements and your first steps.