The 3 Pillars of Corporate Sustainability

What Are the 3 Pillars of Corporate Sustainability?

Corporate sustainability has become a buzzword in companies big and small. Walmart Stores, Inc. (WMT), McDonald’s Corporation (MCD), and many other corporate giants have named sustainability as a key priority moving forward. Now other corporations are under pressure to commit to finding sustainable ways to deliver their goods and services.

However, it's not immediately clear what "corporate sustainability" means. Below are the three key elements of a corporate sustainability strategy: the environmental; the economic; and the social. These have become known as the pillars of corporate sustainability because each of them is needed to support sustainable goals.

Key Takeaways

  • Corporate sustainability is a growing concern among investors who seek not only economic profit but also social good.
  • There are three pillars of sustainable investing: environmental, socially responsible, and governance.
  • Companies can improve their environmental sustainability by reducing their carbon footprint or wasteful practices.
  • The social responsibility pillar consists of practices that benefit the company's employees, consumers, and the wider community.
  • The economic, or governance, pillar refers to maintaining honest and transparent accounting practices and regulatory compliance.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria, Explained

Understanding Corporate Sustainability

Corporate sustainability practices typically fall under the umbrella of ESG, or environment, social, and governance practices. Corporations implement ESG in order to reduce their environmental footprint or to accomplish other objectives of benefit to society. This is related to SRI, or socially responsible investing.

Sustainability is most often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Broadly speaking, a company implements sustainable practices by reducing its consumption of limited resources, or finding alternative resources with lower environmental consequences.

Sustainability has three main pillars: economic, environmental, and social. These three pillars are informally referred to as people, planet, and profits.

The Environmental Pillar

The environmental pillar often gets the most attention. Many companies are focused on reducing their carbon footprints, packaging waste, water usage, or other damage to the environment. Besides helping the planet, these practices can also have a positive financial impact. For example, reducing the use of packaging materials means lower spending, and improved fuel efficiency also helps with the company's budget.

In a recent example, Walmart keyed in on packaging through their zero-waste initiative, pushing for less packaging throughout their supply chain and for more of that packaging to be sourced from recycled or reused materials.

One of the challenges with the environmental pillar is that a business's impact is often not fully costed, meaning that there are externalities that are not reflected in consumer prices. The all-in costs of wastewater, carbon dioxide, land reclamation, and waste in general are not easy to calculate because companies are not always the ones on the hook for the waste they produce. This is where benchmarking comes in to try and quantify those externalities, so that progress in reducing them can be tracked and reported in a meaningful way.

The Social Pillar

The social pillar ties back into another poorly defined concept: social license. A sustainable business should have the support and approval of its employees, stakeholders, and the community it operates in. The approaches to securing and maintaining this support are various, but it comes down to treating employees fairly and being a good neighbor and community member, both locally and globally.

$12 trillion

Between 2016 and 2018, sustainable, responsible, and impact investing grew at a more than 38 percent rate, rising from $8.7 trillion in 2016 to $12 trillion in 2018, according to the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.

On the employee side, businesses refocus on retention and engagement strategies, including more responsive benefits such as better maternity and family benefits, flexible scheduling, and learning and development opportunities. For community engagement, companies have come up with many ways to give back, including fundraising, sponsorship, scholarships and investment in local public projects.

On a global social scale, a business needs to be aware of how its supply chain is being filled. Is child labor going into the end product? Are people being paid fairly? Is the work environment safe? Many of the large retailers have struggled with this as public outrage over tragedies like the Bangladesh factory collapse, which have illustrated previously unaccounted for risks in sourcing from the lowest-cost supplier.

The Economic Pillar

The economic pillar of sustainability is where most businesses feel they are on firm ground. To be sustainable, a business must be profitable. That said, profit cannot trump the other two pillars. In fact, profit at any cost is not at all what the economic pillar is about. Activities that fit under the economic pillar include compliance, proper governance, and risk management. While these are already table stakes for most North American companies, they are not the global standard.

Sometimes, this pillar is referred to as the governance pillar, referring to good corporate governance. This means that boards of directors and management align with shareholders' interests as well as that of the company's community, value chains, and end-user customers.

With regard to governance, investors may want to know that a company uses accurate and transparent accounting methods, and that stockholders are given an opportunity to vote on important issues. They may also want assurances that companies avoid conflicts of interest in their choice of board members, don't use political contributions to obtain unduly favorable treatment and, of course, don't engage in illegal practices.

It is the inclusion of the economic pillar and profit that makes it possible for corporations to come on board with sustainability strategies. The economic pillar provides a counterweight to extreme measures that corporations are sometimes pushed to adopt, such as abandoning fossil fuels or chemical fertilizers instantly rather than phasing in changes. 

The Impact of Sustainability

The main question for investors and executives is whether or not sustainability is an advantage for a company. In practical terms, all the strategies under sustainability have been co-opted from other business movements like Kaizen, community engagement, the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), talent acquisition, and so on. Sustainability provides a larger purpose and some new deliverables for companies to strive for and helps them renew their commitments to basic goals like efficiency, sustainable growth, and shareholder value.

Perhaps more importantly, a sustainability strategy that is publicly shared can deliver hard-to-quantify benefits such as public goodwill and a better reputation. If it helps a company get credit for things they are already doing, then why not? For the companies that cannot point to an overall vision to improve in these three pillars, however, there isn't a real market consequence—yet.

The trend seems to be making sustainability and a public commitment to its basic business practices, much like compliance is for publicly traded companies. If this comes to pass, then companies lacking a sustainability plan could see a market penalty, rather than proactive companies seeing a market premium.

For some companies, sustainability represents an opportunity to organize diverse efforts under one umbrella concept and gain public credit for it. For other companies, sustainability means answering hard questions about the how and why of their business practices that could have a serious, if gradual, impact on their operations.

What Is Corporate Sustainability Reporting?

Corporate sustainability reporting is a process where companies regularly publish sustainability goals and report their progress in achieving them, in a way that helps the public understand how the company is contributing to a sustainable global economy. Sustainability reports may include information about the company's use of resources, the positive and negative effects of their operations on the environment, and their strategies to become more sustainable in the future.

How Does Sustainability Affect Corporate Governance?

The governance pillar of sustainability refers to practices like honest accounting, transparency, and regulatory compliance, that keep the company's values in line with those of society at large. It is also important for the company's values to align with those of the community, value chains, and end-user customers.

What Are Some Benefits of Corporate Sustainability?

In addition to the social benefits of serving the community and environment, sustainable practices can also benefit corporate profits in the long term. For example, adopting policies that benefit their employees and community will generate goodwill for the company, and may also increase the disposable income of their potential customers. This can result in more people buying the company's products–a net benefit in the long run.

The Bottom Line

Sustainability encompasses the entire supply chain of a business, requiring accountability from the primary level, through the suppliers, all the way to the retailers. If producing something sustainably becomes a competitive edge for supplying multinational corporations, this could reconfigure some of the global supply lines that have developed based solely on low-cost production. Of course, that scenario depends on how strongly corporations embrace sustainability and whether it is a true change of direction or just lip service.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. "Sustainable Investing Basics."

  2. Walmart. "Reducing Waste."

  3. U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. "Sustainable investing assets reach $12 trillion as reported by the US SIF Foundation’s biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends," Page 1.

  4. Kaizen Institute. "What is Kaizen?"

  5. Jim Collins. "BHAG."

  6. UNEP. "Frequently Asked Questions on Corporate Sustainability Reporting." Page 8.

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.