There are three fundamentally different things you can do in or with an organization when things come to social and environmental effects: Responsible development, Sustainable development, “Impactable” development (or we like to say impactful).
They are often mixed in minds and speech and people think that sustainable development means ecological, responsible means less profitable and that to have impact it is enough to produce some common good. These three are all wrong.
Responsible development or responsible management is rooted in terms ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance), CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and Socially Responsible Investing. Please read the linked articles if you wish to know more, and here we will just summarize.
Together they say: your organization may harm people and damage the environment, so be conscious and try to do less harm and more good to others.
In detail there are many good practices of how to lower natural resources consumption, respect human rights, provide equal access for different people and good working conditions. So, if your organization is good in Responsible Development, it will be as friendly as possible to other people (employees, partners, customers, general public) and to nature.
Traditional charity is a part of this way. And often organizations do harm in one place and make excuses by charity in another.
Sustainable Development means only one and quite different thing—your organization will be able to continue its operations forever. This means that there is a natural balance. For example, trees grow at a very specific rate, and if you cut them faster, you break the balance. Animals are born at a very specific rate, and if you hunt them faster, you break the balance. If no—you can cut and hunt forever, it’s sustainable.
So sustainability formally has nothing in common with responsibility. It’s just about could you do something forever or not.
If someone growth animals in terrible conditions, uses child labor and do all such things it's terribly irresponsible but it may be absolutely sustainable. And it was, and it is. Millions of local farmers did this for thousands of years.
Now, the impact term itself means kind of influence, change. It’s not about just having some results. It’s about that something was like this before, and now it is like that. Impact is about changing the steady balance of any system from one position to another.
So impact is about the system state change from one steady state to another.
If an organization is just trying to use less water, produce less pollution, respect human rights and manage itself not to exceed the natural limits, this doesn’t mean it has at least some impact. It is just responsible and sustainable.
To talk about impact development an organization should:
- Outline the current undesired state of some system. For example: We have this area of trees being cut every day.
- Set a goal, a target desired state of the same system. For example: We wish to make the area of forests to be at least constant on Earth or some specific region.
- Define a method to reach the goal. For example: we will sell CO₂ capture certificates and pay foresters from that money to plant new trees.
- Measure the progress towards the goal to check the balance shift. For example: We plant new trees at this speed rate, every tree we plant captures this amount of CO₂ at this rate, so here are the graphs of how we succeed — and here is a new steady state.
So before taking any actions, think what kind of organization do you create: responsible, sustainable or impactful? These characteristics are not mutually exclusive, they may perfectly complement and empower each other. But to combine them effectively it’s great to learn what each of three means and how it works.