'Sustainable' means different things in politics, but it's sound thinking in business
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In politics, we are fond of saying "words matter." It's true. This can mean "how you say it, not what you say," or it can mean "which words do you choose" to describe an issue or situation.


Words can mean one thing to a conservative and something very different to a liberal. Mention the word "sustainable" to a liberal member of Congress and you immediately have credibility, common ground with many. Mention the word "sustainable" to a conservative member and you might have a disagreement on your hands or, at a minimum, whatever you say after that will go unheard.

Outside the realm of politics, it may mean something else again. In the business world, it means sound thinking.

As Congress and the administration debate about climate change, companies that are the pillars of the U.S. economy are changing the way they do business, taking steps to make their businesses more sustainable and speaking out publicly about need for federal policy support. These companies and investors include Mars, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Nestlé and Unilever.

But what does "sustainable" mean? Clearly, people ascribe different meanings to the word, so let's go to a neutral corner, "Roget's Thesaurus."

SUSTAIN (verb) 1. To keep in a condition of good repair, efficiency or use; keep up, maintain, preserve.

2. To hold up; bear, carry, support. 

3. To keep from yielding or failing during stress or deficiency: bolster, buoy, prop, support, uphold.

That all sounds like conservation to us; the base of which is to conserve. What business wouldn't make this goal a part of their mission?

Companies prodded by shareholders and organizations, like Ceres (a nonprofit sustainability group) have begun to take action. Initially, much of their action was internal, such as finding alternative sources of commodity groups to hedge against volatility in agricultural yields, or locking in renewable energy purchase agreements to shield against volatility in energy markets.

But soon, companies realized that they could not unilaterally solve regional and global environmental problems. So they began to work together to create voluntary corporate commitments and standards that go beyond current government regulations and protections.

These voluntary standards have proven impactful, but businesses soon realized that they aren't enough and that the government too must implement more robust policies to address climate-related challenges.

This paradigm shift was caused by the realization that environmental protection and economic growth can be mutually reinforcing. A sustainable world — a world where countries have come together to solve the riddle of supply and demand — is now a prerequisite for a healthy and growing global economy.

Businesses are stepping up and letting their voices be heard. While implementing sustainability goals and policies within their companies, they are either conserving our economic health and well-being, or they are creating a sustainable future for all of us. You pick the appropriate words.

Walsh (R-N.Y.) and Gordon (D-Tenn.) are former members of the House of Representatives. They currently work at the law firm K&L Gates in Washington. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of K&L Gates, its partners or employees.